Thursday, March 29, 2007

In Albany, They Still Play 'Let's Make A Deal'

School Aid Restored; Health Care Cuts Curtailed; April 1st To Bring On-Time Budget; Details Still Hammered Out Behind Closed Doors By Three Men In A Room

Word from Albany has it that Long Island's school districts will continue to get their historical -- if not equitable and sufficient -- share of the State Aid pie, and the cuts to Medicaid reimbursement and health care threatened by the Governor won't nearly be as harsh as anticipated.

Indeed, we may have a Constitutionally-mandated April 1st budget in place after all, with the Legislature restoring, as it has done in years past, some $1 billion to the Governor's proposed budget.

So here we are. Day 87, and what has really changed in Albany?

A few new faces, here and there. A couple of in-your-face shouting matches. A little steamrolling along State Street. Not very much at all, truth be told.

For all the talk of reform, of transparency, of open government, we basically have fallen back to the very status quo that Albany has been all too comfortable with for the last 12 years.

Yes, the budget will be on-time for only the third time in twenty-three years. But query as to whether a late budget is better than a bad budget?

Guaranteed that, in the months ahead, we'll be moaning about the property tax, questioning this year's crop of member item grants, and watching our mailboxes for those thirty-two cent rebate checks.

Albany, but a glimmer in the eyes of lawmakers from its dysfunction of yesteryear, seems to rest, if uneasily, on a twist in the old baseball adage, "wait 'til next year."

Wait 'til next year for real reform. Wait 'til next year for real property tax relief. Wait 'til next year for those three men in that room to open the door and let in other voices, not to mention the cleansing light of day.

Unfortunately, most New Yorkers can no longer afford to wait. And, evidently, the more things change in Albany, the more they stay the same!
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'Steamroller' in Albany Learns How to Concede
By Michael Cooper and Danny Hakim

ALBANY, March 28 — Gov. Eliot Spitzer brought a hard-charging style to Albany, taking on adversaries personally and directly, even lambasting lawmakers in their home districts. But the State Legislature knows how to play hardball too, and the rookie governor is having to meet them halfway on his first budget.

So after Governor Spitzer waged a lonely, bruising political battle to try to reduce Medicaid costs — and was attacked in millions of dollars of television ads paid for by the health care union and a hospitals association — he ended up agreeing to restore many proposed cuts as part of the budget deal he is hammering out.

In a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Spitzer claimed a victory of sorts, saying that the agreements he and legislative leaders had reached so far had given him much of what he wanted. But he acknowledged that he had had to alter many of his key proposals to win the support of lawmakers.

“The overall level of spending, obviously, it is a bit higher than I had initially wanted,” Governor Spitzer said. “As I’ve said to a number of you over the course of today, you do not turn a battleship inside a bathtub. It takes a bit more than one budget cycle to get us down to the spending levels we want.”

Talks are still under way as the governor and the Legislature struggle to meet the April 1 budget dealine. But both sides say the Legislature has succeeded in increasing Mr. Spitzer’s proposed budget by nearly $1 billion — about the amount it usually adds to a governor’s budget. And now lawmakers in both parties are questioning privately whether the governor’s alpha-dog style has been all that effective.

State Senator Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican majority leader, who led the main opposition to the governor’s budget and sometimes found himself at the business end of the governor’s public tongue-lashings, seemed pleased.

“You know, I’ve stated before and others have stated, when you want to talk about numbers — depends on how you count,” Mr. Bruno said at a hearing, to much laughter. “You understand that, I understand that, this governor’s learned it quickly.”

The counting was still not done on Wednesday night. While there were many areas still to be agreed on, the agreements drove total spending for next year up to more than $121.6 billion — making it the ninth-largest increase of state-financed spending in the last 40 years, according to the Empire Center for New York State Policy, a conservative policy group.

Civic groups — which have been largely supportive of Governor Spitzer so far — were decidedly cool to the few details that emerged from the budget negotiations. The Citizens Budget Commission, which praised many of the governor’s proposals, called the agreed-on Medicaid cuts “modest,” and said the price for achieving them was high in terms of increased spending overall.

Numerous civic groups complained about the secrecy of the budget talks, saying that it looked as if, in the rush to make the April 1 deadline, the governor would have to waive the constitutional requirement that gives lawmakers three days to study laws before voting on them.

There were many contentious issues left to be resolved — any one of which could derail the chances of passing a budget by Sunday. These included whether to allow more charter schools in the state, whether to add a nickel deposit to cans and bottles of non-carbonated beverages, whether to give a tax break to people who send their children to private and parochial schools, and whether to give pay raises to judges.

But in a number of areas, Mr. Spitzer argued that the agreements he won would yield dividends in the future, even if they did not look significant at first.

His plan to create a new school spending formula to send more money to New York City and other high-needs districts survived, with some significant changes. But the Republican-led State Senate got him to double the amount of operating aid being sent to Long Island’s school districts, and to increase aid to other wealthy districts.

This allows the governor to boast that he has boiled the state’s many arcane formulas down to one understandable, predictable formula, and that he has broken the historic system of dividing school aid by shares — a system that always gave New York City close to 39 percent of new school aid and Long Island between 12 and 13 percent.

Senate Republicans lost their fight to change the new formula to enshrine the current share system, but were nonetheless able to win an agreement to add $420 million outside the formula to make sure Long Island gets its traditional share next year.

“In terms of operating aid, what we call above the line, I believe our share will be at least what it was in the past” said Senator Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican. “Maybe a little more.”

Still, even if shares survive in some form next year, analysts argue that the new formula is significant. “I think if you succeed in changing the formula through the statute — putting in place a new aid formula that actually breaks shares — that is significant,” said Edmund J. McMahon, the director of the Empire Center.

And when it came to the fight over health care spending — the biggest public battle of the budget — the governor said that he was restoring about $350 million out of his $1.3 billion in proposed cuts. Details were sketchy, but people with knowledge of the deal said the largest components involved restoring most of an annual inflation adjustment to Medicaid payments made to hospitals and nursing homes, and allowing the expiration of a tax on hospitals that he had proposed extending.

During the budget battle, the leaders of two powerful health care groups, 1199 United Healthcare Workers East and the Greater New York Hospital Association, were singled out for criticism by Governor Spitzer in front of hundreds of business and civic leaders at a power breakfast early this month. On Wednesday they gleefully sent out a news release claiming that the governor’s concessions would amount to the restoration of nearly 70 percent of his proposed cuts to hospitals and nursing homes.

But Mr. Spitzer said that “their 70 percent is just way off.”

“The hospital reductions are over 50 percent of what we had initially proposed, over 50 percent, and that is an important number,” Mr. Spitzer said.

But the governor won changes to how health care spending is distributed that he argues will yield benefits in time, and he got the State Senate to agree to pass a False Claims Act that he says will help Albany significantly recoup losses from Medicaid fraud.

The governor agreed to the Senate’s demand that property tax relief be sent directly to homeowners in the form of rebate checks. And while he held firm to his demand that it be focused on the middle class, he agreed to extend the relief to more high earners at the request of the Senate.

In the end Mr. Spitzer, who referred to himself earlier this year as a “steamroller,” did not flatten out everything in his path. He gave ground in some areas and won ground in others.

“There’s no steam in the roller,” State Senator Martin J. Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, said.

“You can’t do it on your own. I think he’s learning that.”

Nicholas Confessore contributed reporting.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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Click HERE to read the Newsday story, Negotiations on Budget Deal

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