ALBANY — Despite having announced a tentative deal, Governor Spitzer and lawmakers last night were groping their way to the budget finish line, caught up in a morass of unanswered questions about the final outcome of the state's spending plan.
Dust settled on budget negotiations late Tuesday, only to be kicked up again as the two sides offered conflicting figures on spending increases and critical policy details, and struggled to pin down large budget numbers that had been negotiated in secret but were clearly far from finalized.
Lawmakers were in overdrive mode, racing to fill in the missing pieces of a budget that is due by Saturday night, as it became increasingly likely that Mr. Spitzer would have to issue a "message of necessity" to circumvent the usual three-day aging process imposed on most bills. If the deadline is met, the public would not be able to see important pieces of the budget, including the distribution of pork-barrel member items, until hours before the budget is passed.
Mr. Spitzer, who is known for his lightning-quick mastery of policy minutiae, found himself stumbling through answers to basic questions on the budget posed by reporters at a press conference intended to calm the confusion. Asked to provide a geographic breakdown of new education aid, Mr. Spitzer supplied numbers and then acknowledged they did not add up.
"There's a missing piece. We'll clarify that," he said, adding that there would be "reams of data and numbers that are going to be released." He turned over the press conference to his budget director, Paul Francis, who answered some questions and appeared rattled as he hastily left the room after being peppered with other, unanswered questions.
By late yesterday evening, the governor's budget office had not released any data on paper and still could not provide a breakdown on education funding.
"The time-frame for doing this is a bit more compressed than we hoped perhaps, but nonetheless it's moving forward as it should," Mr. Spitzer said.
The rush was caused by the lateness of the broad agreement reached by the governor and lawmakers on available revenue, the scope of Medicaid cuts, and the distribution of education funding and property tax cuts, issues that had kept Mr. Spitzer and Senate Republicans fiercely divided. Conference committees were only now hammering out the details of the budget, a process that was supposed to begin more than a week ago.
"At this point, all the information is just terrible," the president of the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, Diana Fortuna, said. "We won't know for days what the numbers really are. We are back to the situation where people were arguing over how much there was to spend and not turning their attention to the question of how to spend it."
Still left in the air were the fate of Mr. Spitzer's expansion of charter schools, his $100 million plan to invest in stem cell research, and exact figures on household income cut-offs of a $1.3 billion property tax plan that the governor hoped to gear toward middle-class residents.
Mr. Spitzer, who came to office pledging to bring more transparency to a budget process long tainted by secrecy and backroom deals, defended the course of negotiations.
"There is a good-faith effort on the part of all of us involved to get an on-time budget, which means we have been working relentlessly for weeks to generate the numbers, the proposals, the ideas, to bring them out into the public," he said. "The only objective arbiter at the end of the day is going to be the public of the State of New York."
The administration was claiming that the budget would add about $800 million to the state funds, which are generated by state revenue, on top of the governor's original $83.6 billion plan. Lawmakers were putting that figure at closer to $1 billion. Neither side could say how much the total all-funds budget would end up at because several areas, such as capital money, had not been resolved.
The Spitzer administration said the budget preserved 52% of the hospital cuts it had originally proposed and 33% of nursing home cuts, slashing the growth of Medicaid by $1 billion. The state's major hospital employees union, 1199 SEIU, which lobbied aggressively to roll back the cuts, said the restorations were deeper, claiming that the budget would restore 68% of hospital cuts.
Mr. Spitzer said his groundbreaking education "foundation" funding formula, which would drive more money into urban districts, had survived negotiations and that the administration had fundamentally changed the way the state distributes aid.
Senate Republicans claimed, however, that of the $420 million in aid added onto Mr. Spitzer's $1.4 billion package of new education money, $113 million was heading to suburban Long Island, an increase that would raise the region's share of the education pot to 13%, the standard percentage it's gotten for years. One Senate Republican said the 13% figure, a critical marker for Senate Republicans, was achieved only by excluding capital building reimbursement from the formula, making it appear that Long Island received a bigger slice of the pie.
"When you want to talk about numbers, it depends on how you count them," the Republican majority leader, Joseph Bruno, said at a public two-house conference meeting, eliciting laughter from lawmakers and staffers in the audience. "The governor has learned that quickly."
The question that emerged during the frantic course of the day was whether the governor's desire to wrap up negotiations this week came at the cost of transparency and clarity in the budgeting process.
A top Spitzer administration official said yesterday the governor had made a calculation that the lines of defense on each side were static, and that any gains that could be gotten by prolonging talks into April and beyond would be outweighed by the risks of a protracted stalemate.
While several newspaper editorial boards have urged Mr. Spitzer to hold the line, the administration believed that such enthusiasm would diminish as the budget war lingered on, the official said. The administration also concluded that Senate Republicans were united and were unlikely to split their votes along geographic lines. The governor also did not want to allow negotiations to spoil his post-budget agenda for the remainder of the six-month session, the official said.