Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Governor As Chief Cook And Bottle Washer

Pataki Threatens To Veto $2 Billion Of Legislature's Budget Initiatives, And For All The Wrong Reasons

The old saying went something like this: "The Governor proposes. The Legislature disposes." That's the way it used to be in Albany. Of course, "used to be" doesn't count for much anymore, particularly in light of court rulings that place virtually all of the budgetary decisions in the hands of the chief executive, and when a lame-duck Governor, peeved that the legislature has conspired to -- for better or for worse -- legislate, is intent on taking the legislative branch out of the process entirely.

Governor Pataki, for one thing, doesn't like the legislature's property tax rebate. Not for any of the reasons we've expressed in this blog (i.e., the rebate does nothing to solve the property tax crisis, and only adds to the State's long-term debt), but rather, because it supplant's his own proposed rebate (the one that offered $400 to taxpayers residing in school districts that cap budget increases at 4%).

Mr. Pataki also looks with disfavor upon the legislature's proposed health care initiatives ($650 million worth, as substituted for the Guv's own proposals), the proposed tax credit for families with children under 17 (the Governor prefers his own plan, which amounts to what critics have called a "stealth voucher"), and the lump sums allocated for so-called "member items" (not because he believes that pork is bad, but because he wants to punish legislators who would dare tinker with the Executive Budget).

There is another old adage worth repeating here: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." To that we can be thankful that Mr. Pataki has wisely opted not to seek a fourth term as Governor. Another four years, and what has been characterized as the nation's most dysfunctional legislature may well have atrophied into oblivion.

It's not that we would strip the Governor of his beloved veto power, but please, Mr. Pataki, are you really empowered to be judge, jury, and executioner? Yes, according to the court's interpretation of New York's Constitution. No, if you are an adherent to longstanding precedent which leaves to the legislature the privilege of fine tuning the Governor's proposed budget. [If it were otherwise, at least in terms of the State's capacity to spend (which, after all, is everything), we wouldn't need a legislature at all (an idea we occasionally toy with, but not at the risk of the abolition of democratic rule).]

The budget process in New York State is weighted heavily in favor of the Governor. The courts, in recent years, have bolstered the Executive position so as to essentially reduce the legislature's role to that of producing a straight "yea" or "nay" vote, and little, if anything, more.

Hands tied (the apparent evolutionary result of too many decades sitting on them), the Legislature may not, with rare exception, alter an appropriations bill as offered by the Governor except to strike out or reduce the amount of an item recommended therein. It may, however, add items separate and distinct from those included in the original bill submitted by the Governor. It is the latter that Governor Pataki would curtail in his "my way or highway" approach to budget-making.

Whether the legislature, in passing, for instance, it's own version of the property tax rebate has simply "striken out or reduced" the Governor's proposal in favor of a "seperate and distinct" item of its own devise is perhaps a matter of semantics, and surely one that a court will -- if not this year, then in a session of the legislature not all that far away -- be asked to decide.

It is clearly not for the Governor, in his capacity as the State's chief Executive, to rule from upon high that the legislature's actions are unconstitutional, or failing in this, that he need pay no mind to legislation he deems to be "illegal." That is, not unless the Governor would assume not only the role of executive and legislature, but that of judiciary, as well.
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Last November, New Yorkers had the opportunity to level the playing field between Governor and Legislature by adopting an Amendment to the State Constitution. The electorate voted "NO." They did, however, vote to grow the State's deepening debt by passing a multi-million dollar Transportation Bond Act, the proceeds of which, for the most part, have yet to have a positive impact on the condition of New York's roads and bridges, or, for that matter, to have made any inroads in improving a mass transit system that, in many regions -- including Long Island -- is either non-existent or woefully inadequate. Welcome to New York!

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