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by Jay Gallagher

Monday, March 15, 2010

Finger-pointing time at the Capitol

The elaborate dance among legislators trying to wring maximum political advantage (Republicans) and minimizing political harm (Democrats) from the ugly budget that has to be passed this year has begun.

Legislative leaders announced over the weekend that they have agreed to establish bipartisan committees of rank-and-file lawmakers to try to reach agreement on a new state budget in public meetings.

Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, want to draw the Republicans into what is sure to be a painful process as lawmakers try to figure out how to close a $9 billion budget gap. Republicans likely won’t want any part of it.

So far, Gov. David Paterson has been the budget bad guy, proposing specific steps like cutting aid to local schools by $1.4 billion, slashing health-care spending by $1 billion, closing more than 40 state parks and raising taxes on sugared drinks and cigarettes. He had been rewarded by record-low poll ratings.

Since Paterson came out with his plan in January, lawmakers have spent most of their time agreeing that the problem is serious, listening to those who oppose specific cuts and tax hikes and otherwise keeping their heads down.

But now, with the new state fiscal year starting April 1, the rubber is coming close to hitting the road. The final decision is up to the Legislature, and establishing the committees is a step towards meeting that responsibility.

This is mostly good news.

“Clearly in this fiscal crisis the public needs to know where their tax money is going,’’ said League legislative director Barbara Bartoletti.

But first, she pointed out, each house first has to pass its own budget resolution detailing its plans of how to balance the budget, so the panels of lawmakers in these public meetings will have a starting point.

“That’s what has to happen first,’’ she said.

And that’s where much of the political jockeying is likely to take place. Republicans will try to portray the unpleasant documents as the work solely of the majority Democrats. Their message will likely be that the world would be a place of lower taxes and more public services if only voters would give them control of the Legislature.

The Dems, on the other hand, will try to show that the bad news has to be borne - and that if Republicans are serious about wanting to govern, they have to join in making the tough decisions.

Can all of this be done by April 1? Of course not. But any hint of actual progress by then would be a welcome signal that lawmakers are more responsible than most New Yorkers now give them credit for.

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