A Race to Vote on a Budget in Albany
By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.
ALBANY, May 15 Operating in closed meetings, state lawmakers today began absorbing details of the gargantuan budget bills negotiated by their leaders. The legislators, juggling dozens of dollar figures largely in their heads, were to begin voting on the bills Thursday morning.
Late tonight, the administration released some details of the $89.6 billion plan that has been hammered out in secret meetings between the legislative leaders and the governor over the last two weeks. The talks have not included rank-and-file legislators, who tonight still had yet to be given details on paper. Nor had they seen the bills, although the leaders had briefed them extensively.
State aid to local schools will increase about $440 million above what Gov. George E. Pataki proposed in January, with $4 of every $10 going to New York City. All told, spending will rise about 6 percent, but the portion paid for with state revenues will rise only 3 percent.
The budget depends heavily on spending about $1.2 billion of the state's savings, borrowing hundreds of millions and using about $1 billion in other one-time revenues. These pools of money will let the state avert deep cuts in services and proceed with planned tax cuts at a time when income tax revenues have dropped because of last year's recession and the terrorist attack.
"I believe we have done a very good job under circumstances that were less than ideal,"said the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat.
Some lawmakers said they feared that the government would face a huge shortfall next year because the budget includes at least $2 billion in revenues that will not recur.
"It's a lousy budget," said Assemblyman William L. Parment, a Jamestown Democrat. "It's a budget that relies too heavily on borrowing and one-shot revenues, very similar to the bad budgets that we did back in the late 1980's and early 1990's."
But Governor Pataki defended the use of state reserves and other one-time revenues to get through hard times. "All in all, in an extraordinarily difficult year, this is a great budget," he said.
Some of the nine bills detailing that budget went to the printers today, though some fine print on other bills had yet to be worked out late tonight.
The budget does not raise income or business taxes, but it does raise about $86 million by increasing fees or imposing surcharges on everything from hunting licenses to cellphones. It also expands the state cigarette tax to include cigars and chewing tobacco.
Late Tuesday night, the leaders agreed on an early retirement program that had eluded them. The state would offer early retirement to most civil servants who are 55 and have served 25 years, excluding the police and other workers the governor deems essential. The governor would also be able to offer incentives to other workers at his discretion. The buyouts should save the state $55 million and remove 5,000 workers from the payroll, officials said. The retirement program is also available to local governments.
Negotiators failed to agree on a number of issues but agreed to pass the budget anyway in the hope of working out those sticking points later. The budget will not give Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg control over the New York City school system as some city lawmakers had hoped. Neither will it force the city to devote a greater share of its annual revenues to the schools.
"There is no agreement at this point on school governance," Assemblyman Steven Sanders of Manhattan said. "There are still some nettlesome issues that have to be discussed."
Another impasse was over the Superfund, a state program that cleans up toxic waste sites. The governor wanted to provide $90 million for the fund and change the cleanup standards in some cases. The Democrats in control of the Assembly argued for a $200 million program with no change to the standards.
In the end, the budget includes only $11 million to keep paying the Superfund staff for another year. This is the second year in a row the fund has not been replenished, and environmental officials have been unable to start cleaning up 800 hazardous waste sites.
"It's terrible," said Michael Livermore, a lobbyist for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's just stranding thousands of families."
So confused was the state of affairs late last night that aides to the governor and legislative leaders could not agree on the language for a news release outlining the basic details of the final agreement.
The Democrats who control the Assembly won a significant increase at the negotiating table for the New York City schools. Mr. Pataki's January proposal would have cut $40 million in state aid for the city schools. The city now will not only receive about $200 million in additional operating aid, but it will also get an additional one-time infusion of $200 million from the state to reimburse the city for old claims it failed to file on time.
"This is the best news New York City's schools have had in many months," Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy said in a statement.
The talks over the final budget took place against a dismal economic backdrop; tax revenues in April were about $1.2 billion lower than the Pataki administration had expected.
To make up for that shortfall and pay for about $700 million in new spending, the administration and lawmakers are increasing taxes on cigarettes and cellphones, and raiding every pool of money the state has. They plan to take more than $560 million out of various state funds for special purposes and spend it on general purposes. They are also taking $200 million from the Environmental Protection Fund and $200 million from a fund set up to pay for health insurance for the poor.
In addition, the state intends to sell off abandoned property the state takes over, like bank accounts, car insurance refunds and security deposits, to gain about $300 million.
think we are scraping the bottom of a lot of barrels for money here,
and unless the state's revenues improve significantly, next year's
budget will be even more difficult," said Assemblyman Richard
N. Gottfried, a Manhattan Democrat.