Journal News. 3/29/2005.

For the first time in 20 years, the state Legislature is close to passing a budget by New York's April 1 deadline. Credit three intertwined factors for galvanizing almost unheard-of Albany action: a law school study last year that gave New York's Legislature a new nickname, "the most dysfunctional in the nation''; strong election challenges last fall to some status-quo lawmakers; and this year's lowest approval ratings ever for the governor.


The public woke up, so the Legislature woke up. There was a price, however. By week's end, out-and-out crankiness among tired leaders, rank-and-file lawmakers and staff was widely reported. They apparently were unused to the demands of the job.


But some toughed it out, working feverishly even over the Easter weekend — despite the lack of an agreement on key issues with Gov. George Pataki. Yesterday, the Legislature began drafting its version of the 2005-'06 state budget.


Lest the back-patting become premature, though, it is worth remembering that Pataki is eager to don his mantle of fiscal conservative. He especially is displeased with the $1.55 billion that the Legislature has added to his budget proposal, submitted in January at $105.5 billion. In fact, he estimates the extra spending will double the state deficit to $5 billion in the 2006-'07 fiscal year.


Meanwhile, there are key revenue differences among players. Lawmakers have rejected Pataki's proposed $500 increase in public-college tuition in the fall; reinstated a clothing sales tax for items that cost less than $110, at least until April 1, 2006; and continued an income-tax increase for New Yorkers making more than $500,000 a year until Dec. 31.


Will Pataki buy such changes? Does he have to? A December Court of Appeals decision said that the Legislature is constitutionally limited to the degree it can alter the governor's budget. We've no doubt Pataki will use that newly buoyed power to get his way. Between that, and the regular veto-override process, even a "passed" budget could drag on into the spring.


And that's not even the half of it. Legislators, as is their habit, have sidestepped what to do about court-ordered billions of new dollars for New York City schools. They did add $314 million to Pataki's overall school-aid proposal, with high-need schools, including many in New York City, targeted for the lion's share.


Apparently, though, since Republican Pataki has appealed the school case, brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, lawmakers have reasoned that they, too, can afford to ignore that niggling detail.


"There is no way to make a budget, because even if they make a budget tomorrow, you'd have to put an asterisk on it because they left education out,'' former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo needled last week. "It's a joke."


The new-found industry in Albany isn't, certainly. School district officials, for example, would love to know the state-aid impact on their budgets, which go before voters May 17. Still, they know, even if Pataki and the Legislature won't face it, that the CFE school-funding case can't just be willed away.