Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin. 4/12/2004.

As the days of the new fiscal year tick by with no state budget in place, the Legislature so far hasn't made any progress in solving this year's central budget question: how to pay for extra aid to schools as mandated by the courts.

The elephant in the room when Gov. George E. Pataki and legislative leaders discuss budget issues is the court order that the state increase school spending to provide a "sound, basic education" to New York City students. A plan is supposed to be in place by July 30. Most agree the solution will have include funding many other school districts around the state.

Estimates of the cost of the mandate range from $2.5 billion to $9.5 billion a year. Even in a state where $39 billion is spent annually on public schools (including more than $14 billion in money from Albany) that's a huge increase.

While many called Pataki's response inadequate, he at least has put some numbers on the table, which is more than legislative leaders have done. Pataki has proposed that new gambling revenues be dedicated to meeting the cost -- about $325 million this year and eventually up to $2 billion annually.

That looks anemic to those who think the gambling revenues may not materialize and that even if they do, it's still not nearly enough money.

A commission hand-picked by Pataki provided only a range of possible cost: from $2.5 billion to $5.6 billion a year. Their report said it's up to elected officials to decide how to raise whatever it costs.

That may sound like a copout. But the commission is not alone in not providing such crucial details.

Pataki's chief rival on this and most other issues at the Capitol, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, has provided no specifics about how he would raise the money.

Instead, Silver has said repeatedly that putting together a state budget is like going to a supermarket. You pick the things you want off the shelves, he says. Then you get to the checkout counter and pay for them. If you can't pay for them all, you put some back.

But a more apt analogy would be:

You make your weekly trip to the supermarket. But this time you throw in some new items. Maybe a better grade of meat. Maybe more pasta for some members of your family who are undernourished.

The time to worry about how to pay for these things, of course, is not when you get to the checkout counter. You have to plan ahead. Try laying off the pork (that is, pork-barrel spending loved by legislators).

The third member of the Albany troika, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, R-Brunswick, also hasn't said anything about where to get the money. He said he wants to talk about it after this year's budget is adopted.

The politics, here, of course, is that neither Silver nor Bruno want to be branded as a champion of tax hikes. It's much easier to take shots at what Pataki proposes.

It's not hard to see why any politician would shy away from tackling the problem head-on. It would take massive tax hikes to raise the bulk of the $9.5 billion that the group that initiated the lawsuit, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, says is needed.

According to an analysis done by E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute, the state would have to:

* Raise the income-tax rate from 7.7 percent to 10.2 percent;

* Hike the sales tax by about 3.5 percent, so that combined with local sales taxes it would top 11 percent in most parts of the state;

* Increase the corporate income tax from 7 percent to 25 percent.

Nobody ever became popular advocating tax hikes like that.

There are other options, of course. Cut aid to other districts. Improve teacher productivity. Use money in a more efficient way.

But any changes like that run into political forces so strong that even getting them on the table would be a surprise.

That's why some are predicting that the court deadline will be submerged in a flurry of further lawsuits that will put off any real action for years.