ALBANY — Governor Spitzer, who labeled himself a "steamroller" soon after taking office, might be flinching on some of his key budget demands.
In an interview yesterday with The New York Sun, Mr. Spitzer suggested that he would consider restoring a portion of the $1 billion in Medicaid cuts that have been the target of an attack campaign waged by the hospital industry. He also said he wouldn't rule out scaling back his proposal to expand the number of charter schools in the state.
The governor, who in his first two and a half months in office hasn't hesitated to clash with lawmakers and flex his muscles, is adopting a less hard-line approach as legislative leaders in both houses presented their own budget plans that reversed many of Mr. Spitzer's marquee policy initiatives and cost-saving measures.
"You can't enter any conversation with this many variables in any budget where you say if it isn't this, take a hike," Mr. Spitzer said. "There has to be some give and take on both sides, but we began at a point that we think is right."
With a deadline of April 1 looming, Mr. Spitzer risks having his first year marred by a late budget by refusing to negotiate with lawmakers. If he concedes too much, he also risks appearing weak and setting in place a dangerous pattern of concession in years to come. While many New Yorkers have applauded Mr. Spitzer's aggressive strategy, a delay in passing the budget could make his intransigence seem less like a worthwhile pursuit and more like traditional Albany gridlock.
Heading into negotiations, Mr. Spitzer's strategy is to talk with the Democrat-controlled Assembly and then use a two-way agreement as leverage over Senate Republicans.
The Assembly and the Senate yesterday came out with their own fiscal year 2007–08 budget proposals, each with its own major departures from the governor's spending plan. Both the Assembly and the Senate are proposing to undo the largest Medicaid cost-saving measures in Mr. Spitzer's budget, including his freeze on hospital and nursing home reimbursement rate adjustments. The Assembly called for additions of $483 million, while the Senate proposed tacking on $539.4 million.
While the Senate left alone the governor's plan to lift the state's charter school cap to 250 from 100, the Assembly would like to scale back the expansion to 50 new schools and eliminate the chartering authority of the trustees of the State University of New York, who are mostly appointed by the governor, and of the New York City schools chancellor.
The Assembly also wants to change the chartering law so that the teachers in schools with more than 250 students would be automatically unionized — with the power to decide whether to be affiliated with the major teachers unions in the state.
On the issue of state education aid, the Senate added $358 million to Mr. Spitzer's large increase of $1.4 billion, pouring more money into Long Island school districts that received smaller increases under the governor's plan.
The Assembly, meanwhile, is supporting a mandate that would require New York City to reduce its average public school class sizes to the level of the state median over a four-year period. If Mayor Bloomberg does not reduce class size by building more classrooms, he would have to do it by filling classrooms with more teachers.
Both houses restore a large chunk of the unrestricted revenue sharing aid for New York City that Mr. Spitzer eliminated in his budget. Mr. Spitzer's decision to remove the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid had become a major sore point with Mr. Bloomberg.
The Senate scrapped Mr. Spitzer's property tax plan that added $1.5 billion to an existing program that gives property homeowners exemptions on their property taxes and directs more money to middle-class residents. The Senate replaced it with a $2.6 billion rebate plan that does not favor lower-income homeowners.
The Senate also did away with Mr. Spitzer's proposed clampdown on various complicated tax loopholes that the administration said would allow the state to collect at least $449 million a year.
The Assembly's budget came in at $121.2 billion, $600 million more than what Mr. Spitzer proposed and almost $8 billion more than what was appropriated in the current fiscal year. The Senate claimed its budget was $120.6 billion — the same as Mr. Spitzer's — but it appeared to reach that figure by an unusual method. For instance, it did not take into account the cost of the property tax rebate program.
Mr. Spitzer yesterday had unusually kind words for the Assembly, which he praised for putting out what he said was a responsible budget that represented a good starting point for negotiations, or "conversations," as the governor put it. Mr. Spitzer angrily dismissed the Republican Senate budget as wasteful and "not serious."
"I think it is fair to say their spending is both profligate and their behavior is pandering, and this is unfortunate," Mr. Spitzer said, claiming that it would produce a third-year gap of $12 billion and would increase "general fund" spending by 50% over Mr. Spitzer's budget. He also said the Republican plan would "wipe out" state reserves. The governor's office said it would release exact figures today.
Despite the pressures, Mr. Spitzer is negotiating from a much stronger position than his predecessor, Governor Pataki. Not only does Mr. Spitzer come to the bargaining table boasting a higher public approval rating, he also benefits from having broad support among the Senate Democrats, a conference that is rising in power and is capable of blocking a legislative override.
Despite having reservations about Mr. Spitzer's proposed Medicaid cuts, Senate Democrats signaled yesterday that they wouldn't necessarily join Republicans in an override of a veto on health care spending. The conference yesterday voted overwhelmingly against a non-binding resolution backed by Republicans opposing the governor's health care budget.