There are two weeks left to the state budget deadline and — despite the pressures of the $10 billion dollar deficit — Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders claim to be getting along just fine. Perhaps the good will stems from the fact that Cuomo has a special new weapon that changes the power dynamic in favor of the governor over the legislature.
Normally in Albany, when it’s two weeks before the state budget deadline, politicians are at each others throats over taxing and spending priorities. This year, so far, it’s been very different.
For two consecutive days, legislative leaders emerged from private meetings with Governor Cuomo apparently very cheerful and on the same page.
Cuomo called the talks "productive and collegial," while Senate Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican, praised the "tone of civility."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver allowed his Democratic Majority members to put in a millionaire’s tax in their budget plan, even though the governor opposes it. But Silver is not publicly pushing very hard for the tax.
"I don’t draw lines in the sand," said Silver. "Everything is open, everything is negotiable."
There are some differences in the legislature's and Cuomo's spending plans, but far less than in past years. For instance, Cuomo is cutting $1.5 billion in schools, and lawmakers want to restore just a fraction of the cuts.
Bruce Gyory, political consultant and adjunct political science professor at SUNY Albany, says the amount of money in dispute over this year’s budget is very small, compared to arguments common in the past, and that’s a big change. Gyory says in the old days the legislature’s failure to try to restore most of the money cut by a governor would have caused “Armageddon.”
One reason that lawmakers appear so relatively docile is that while the popular new governor is speaking softly, he's carrying a big stick. And ironically, the potent new weapon comes as a legacy from a governor who was considered one of the weakest in recent state history, Governor David Paterson.
Paterson and his top aides interpreted a court decision, known as Silver v Pataki, to mean that the governor has the power, when the budget is late, to put his entire budget plan into an emergency spending extender and tell lawmakers: Approve this, or the government shuts down.
The high court’s decision said that a governor is allowed to insert language into the budget that changes state policies, and that the legislature has no choice but to go along with it. The court said the Senate and Assembly only have the power to add or subtract monetary allocations to specific programs.
Gyory says Pataki and spitzer were reluctant to "jam" the legislature, but Paterson, acting out of desperation when the budget was weeks overdue, took the notion a step further.
"What Paterson did, in frustration is say, 'OK I'’m throwing reticence to the winds, and I'm going to use everything I can'," said Gyory.
That shifted the power dynamic in favor of the governor. Two of Paterson’s aides who were key in that budget fight remain on with the Cuomo administration.
Even though Pataki was the first to gain that new power through the court decision, he was eventually thwarted by the legislature anyway, because lawmakers used a well-established and long-standing power to reject his budget. The Senate and Assembly leaders cut Pataki out and passed their own budget. When the governor vetoed it, they simply overrode his veto.
Now, however, neither house has the votes for an override. The Assembly Democrats now have just 99 members out of 150, and 100 are needed for an override. In the nearly evenly divided Senate, Gyroy says an override would be nearly impossible.
"Sixty senators could not agree that the NCAA basketball tournament started last night, much less agree to override a gubernatorial veto," Gyory said.
The Majority Leader of the State Assembly, Ron Canestrari, admits that the governor's claim that he has the right to put his entire budget into the very first spending extender dramatically changes the budget process.
"We run the risk of either not approving it, which closes down state government,” said Canestrari. “Or approving it, and state workers get paid but the governor gets part or a lot of what he wants in the state budget."
Canestrari says the "extender threat hanging over our heads" is an added incentive to"get the budget done in a timely manner."
But Canestrari doubts that the governor will have to use his not so secret weapon to get a budget done on time.
"We’re not that far apart really," said Canestrari.
Governor Cuomo, for his part, only alludes to the tactic. At a press conference with legislative leaders present, he said while he's "hopeful" that the budget can be settled amicably by April 1st, then "there are other ways to get the budget done/"
Everyone in the room understood perfectly well what he meant.