First the Red Sox win the World Series and now this: There might actually be an on-time state budget this year.
That's no sure thing, of course, but the State Legislature has given itself the best chance of doing its job in a timely manner since the last on-time budget was passed in 1984. Each preliminary step has been met, more or less, on schedule for passage by the April 1 deadline. With some hard work between now and then, lawmakers actually could break a 20-year string of late budgets.
That would be good news for school districts trying to set budgets for this spring's school elections and for municipalities across the state wondering how much state aid might be available this year. More critically, this budget seems destined to provide some sort of cap on the local share of Medicaid funding that is driving counties across New York toward insolvency.
To pass a budget, joint Senate and Assembly conference committees still must hammer out some controversial differences, and Gov. George Pataki must be convinced any plan agreed on by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno is workable.
There still are differences over how much money should be spent, on whether a bond issue should be used to finance transportation improvements from roads and bridges to New York City subways, and on some of the policies that either enhance revenues or cut costs.
The Assembly, for example, finds the money for its $1.55 billion in additional spending not only in higher estimates of revenue but in re-estimating the costs of some programs, seeking ways to leverage more federal funding and extending a soon-to-expire income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Yorkers.
It appears that it will be up to the governor to use his court-enhanced budget powers to hold down spending, powers that he ought to use.
The two major budgetary issues facing this state are health care, especially Medicaid, and education funding. The Assembly, as usual, proposes more spending for education than Pataki has called for -- $310 million more in school aid and $243 million more for higher education. But neither the governor nor the Legislature comes close to funding any of the more than $23 billion that a court has mandated for New York City students and school infrastructure over the next four years. And since state officials have said that the court ruling for New York City would be applied statewide, the cost will be considerably more. Rather than address the problem, everyone in Albany is simply ignoring it as long as they can.
Both the governor and the Assembly, though, have proposed much-needed caps on local Medicaid spending, a response to the clear message from Erie County and other counties across the state that health care costs are crippling local government. Pataki, who just won $1.5 billion in extra federal Medicaid funding to help pay transition costs for his proposed program reforms, wants a cap that would require counties, in addition to what they are spending now, to pay for only 3.5 percent of growth in Medicaid expenses, falling to 3 percent in a few years. The Assembly proposes capping the cost at whatever the counties' 2006 share turns out to be.
The Senate and the governor should follow the Assembly's lead on the total cap for Medicaid growth. While the Assembly proposal goes the furthest to removing the crushing weight of Medicaid from the backs of county taxpayers throughout the state, it still is not clear where the money will come from to pay for that. If the Assembly Democrats want their proposal to have more weight than a press release, they need to attend to that detail.
Meanwhile, the counties' Medicaid expenses would be similar for a few years under either the governor's plan or that of the Assembly. Under the Assembly plan the gap then would widen in the counties' favor if Medicaid costs continue to climb, and there's nothing now to suggest they won't. An increasing state share of the Medicaid burden might force Albany to make the program reforms necessary to pay for the benefits it decides to provide. That would indeed correct a long-standing injustice in one of the few states that require local governments to foot part of the Medicaid bill.
But that will be real reform only if a new state cap isn't offset by increased state mandates in other areas, as happened during other health care "reforms" in recent years. The devil, as always, will be in the details.
Meanwhile, with agreements on procedure and framework, and a narrowing range of budget numbers to work with, there is a strong possibility that at least some budget bills in areas of little controversy could be passed even before the deadline this year, and the rest of the budget delivered close to the deadline.
That is good news. Just how good won't be known until those devilish details are worked out and made public.