Paterson: Budget 'framework' in place

March 28, 2008 11:18:11 AM PDT
Shrugging off scandal that has gripped New York's Capitol, Gov. David Paterson has against the odds come close to capturing Albany's biggest prize: An on-time state budget agreement with the Legislature."He's rising to the occasion," said Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno of the new Democratic governor. "Many times, the job makes the person. Look at Harry Truman," he said, referring to the vice president rose to power after President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. "He became one of our best presidents."

Paterson, who is legally blind, has been on the job not quite two weeks after his combative former boss, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, resigned amid a prostitution investigation.

Paterson had a rocky start as he tried to negotiate a state budget in dire fiscal times by Tuesday's start of the fiscal year. He has been dogged by questions about his private life and public spending after an extraordinary news conference on March 18 in which he acknowledged past extramarital affairs. He denied additional affairs and said no public funds were used for a romantic rendezvous, and no record or official has proved him wrong.

Paterson had to rework Spitzer's January executive budget proposal to the Legislature as critical Wall Street and mortgage revenues plummeted. Then he negotiated reduced spending with legislative leaders.

Bruno noted that neither Spitzer, the former attorney general, nor Paterson, the former Senate minority leader, had much experience in budgeting before becoming governor. But where Spitzer threatened and bullied, Paterson sought compromise with respect, and humor, Bruno said.

"And David has a partner, a colleague, in me," added Bruno, who was in heated conflict with Spitzer for months.

"This is a Herculean effort by the governor," said Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco, a Republican from Schenectady. "I think we've done something close to a miracle."

The 2008-09 budget, if adopted by Tuesday's start of the fiscal year, is expected to increase spending 4.5 percent over the current budget and fill a nearly $5 billion deficit. That's half of the spending increase in some recent years.

"I think with the tumult of what's been going on the past few weeks, all of you and the public would understand if we took a little extra time to get the budget done," Paterson told reporters Friday. Then he added:

"I think that the constitutional deadline is very important. I think it sets the standard for really what our ethics are in this process," Paterson said. "Because you've had a bad year, because you've had a change in government, it doesn't actually mean that you get to forget about that deadline."

Paterson began the budget process in earnest Wednesday night, with uncommon one-on-one meetings with legislative leaders. He said he wanted to meet "eyeball to eyeball" because he has found that when you tell a group of people about the need for sacrifice, they understand the concept but "they never think you're talking to them."

If the Legislature agrees to budget bills this weekend and passes them by midnight Monday night, Paterson in a drastically short time will have accomplished an on-time budget. Spitzer didn't do that a year ago - missing the deadline by hours while insisting it was on time. Governors George Pataki and Mario Cuomo and their legislatures missed the deadline for 20 straight years.

The leaders agreed Thursday night to a "framework" for a $124 billion state budget that includes a $1.8 billion increase in state school aid. That will mean school aid will be well over $20 billion and among the highest totals in the nation. In January, Spitzer proposed a $1.4 billion increase.

"I think they are all feeling pressure to get a budget done on time," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's been a terrible month, arguably the worst in New York state government history ... to some extent, it is a chance for all of them to turn the page."