GOP’s Skelos Is Sanguine On Budget Woes

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The New York Sun

As a Republican lawmaker in Albany, Dean Skelos has been criticized by Democrats for what they describe as an abrasive style — one that has earned him the nickname “Mean Dean.”

When it comes to finding a way out of the state’s current financial morass, though, the new Republican majority leader is a leading advocate for a gentler touch.

While Governor Paterson in recent weeks has been talking about the state’s widening budget hole with a perpetual grimace, using words such as “pain” and “consequences” and raising the specter of deep spending cuts, Mr. Skelos has adopted a sunnier outlook.

“I think the crisis we had in the early ’90s was worse. I don’t think people are ready to start jumping out of buildings like they did in the ’20s,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Sun.

According to Mr. Skelos, closing the state’s estimated $6.4 billion budget gap next year won’t require a lot of discomfort on the part of lawmakers or state residents, just some discipline and good sense. “I think it can be done in a fairly painless and easy way,” he said.

The Republican leader says Albany could get almost halfway home by approving a constitutional spending cap limiting annual budget growth at 4%, which he said would save the state $2.8 billion a year.

He said the state could gain additional hundreds of millions of dollars by ratcheting up fraud recoveries from a Medicaid system that he says is saddled with waste, despite the creation of a Medicaid inspector general’s office two years ago that was hailed by lawmakers as a major victory against abuse of the program.

Lawmakers could wrangle another $1 billion by enforcing the state’s tax laws and collecting tobacco taxes from the state’s Indian reservations, he said, a move the Paterson administration said it’s considering.

Heading into an election season with his party’s one-seat majority on the line, Mr. Skelos declined to offer any suggestions for actual budget cuts, whether in the area of New York’s Medicaid program, whose eligibility standards are much greater than in most other states, or in the area of public employee pensions and health benefits, which consume $3 billion of the more than $120 billion that the state spends each year.

What’s most definitely off the table, he said, is any reduction in state public education aid, which is set to increase by 10% next year, after jumping by 20% over the last two years.

Citing a court ruling that ordered Albany to increase funding for New York City’s public schools by at least $1.9 billion over several years, Mr. Skelos said the Legislature’s hands were tied. “There’s a court mandate there, so I don’t see, based on a court mandate, where you reduce that,” he said.

Some Democratic lawmakers in Albany have suggested that the Legislature save money by scaling back on school aid to wealthier districts on Long Island, an important base of support for the embattled Republican conference. Mr. Skelos, who represents a district in Nassau County, bristled at the idea: “I don’t think school aid is intended just for New York City,” he said.

Mr. Skelos is leading his Republican colleagues back to Albany Friday so they can pass legislation supported by Mr. Paterson to prohibit school districts in rural and suburban areas from raising property taxes by more than 4% a year.

That Assembly Democrats have expressed little interest in the measure isn’t standing in his way. “Do I surrender because Shelly says no to things?” Mr. Skelos said, referring to the Democratic speaker, Sheldon Silver. “No, we stay focused on it.”

What happens after Friday is not clear. Mr. Paterson has ordered lawmakers to return to the capital later this month, instructing them to start chipping away at next year’s deficit. The governor has asked lawmakers to come up with at least $600 million in savings but has been vague about where to find the money.

Mr. Skelos said lawmakers are looking to the governor for direction but have been left in the dark. “The governor has to participate with the Legislature. He has to present us with bills to act on,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Mr. Paterson was about to do just that. “In the next few days, the governor plans to put forth his budget-cutting proposals to the Legislature, and we’re looking forward to a very productive session, which is imperative given the financial situation,” the spokeswoman, Marissa Shorenstein, said.

The New York Sun

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