"It's an on-time budget, but it's certainly not a final budget. There is a lot of work still to do . . ."
There is truth in Gov. George Pataki's somewhat wet-blanket response yesterday as the Legislature met the state budget deadline for the first time in 21 years.
First, though, credit is due to legislators and the governor for their earnest and relatively open effort to put a budget in place. Yes, it was significant pressure from a fed-up public that brought on lawmakers' frantic effort to shake their well-earned "dysfunctional" label. But they did, finally, take the criticisms seriously.
And a spirit of compromise, finally, replaced habitual impasse. The best example of that was the give-and-take over containing soaring Medicaid costs. The governor didn't get all the spending cuts he wanted, but the legislators did agree to touch what had been a politically untouchable program. The result should be some easing of the annual increases that counties, through their property taxpayers, are forced to shoulder.
The legislators conveniently swept $1.7 billion for some programs under the rug when they couldn't agree with how the governor wanted to spend the money but were powerless to make changes, as the Court of Appeals decreed in a recent decision. That's what Pataki had in mind in referring to "work still to do."
Also still to come is an accounting of how the state would spend $2.9 billion in transportation money it hopes to borrow with voter approval in November. Adding to the state's staggering debt limit is problematic enough. It would be totally unacceptable if state leaders failed to spell out spending plans before the vote, a failure that doomed a bond issue four years ago.
The Legislature and governor were content to perpetuate another failure in discussing a budget that did not adequately respond to a court order that it bring New York City school funding to constitutionally required levels. More education funding is included, but not the sums the court called for in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. And there was no hint of broader statewide funding reform that would address New York City's needs in conjunction with those of other districts.
The governor appealed the court's order that it comply with its ruling, trying to buy yet more time. But CFE announced yesterday it would go back to court to press for immediate compliance.
In breaking the 20-year late-budget streak, the legislators have earned a bit of celebration, and congratulation. But the final bow has yet to be taken.