Standing on the steps of City Hall with clients from agencies that serve New York City residents with serious mental illnesses that had just seen their budgets slashed by state cuts, Assemblyman Peter M. Rivera, a Bronx Democrat, said a 2004 decision by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, had “hampered tremendously” the Legislature’s ability to change the state budget submitted by Republican Gov. George E. Pataki.
“The court, in a 4-to-3 decision, gave the governor more power than we feel he should have,” Rivera said, as the February 23 event.
The ruling said that the Legislature can only approve the governor’s budget as is—it can include language changing laws and policies—or take no action on that budget in an effort to force a negotiation. A February 28 article in the New York Law Journal said the ruling gave Pataki “more power than any other chief executive in the nation.”
On January 18, Pataki announced a $105.5 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins on April 1. The governor had to close
a projected $4.2 billion budget gap and contend with state health care spending that is expected to hit $44 billion in the next fiscal year.
The proposed budget cuts Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor and disabled, by $1 billion. An estimated 65,000 New Yorkers with AIDS are Medicaid beneficiaries and the program pays for some services at some AIDS and gay health groups.
The budget added new eligibility requirements for Family Health Plus, a state-run health insurance plan, which could result in 25,000 of its 470,000 current enrollees losing their coverage. Organizations such as the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, a gay health clinic in Chelsea, have clients who are covered by the plan.
More recently, a $3.15 million state cut in mental health dollars could reduce or end services at 21 private agencies that serve mentally ill New Yorkers including Rainbow Heights, the only organization in the state that specifically helps lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who are living with serious mental illness, located in downtown Brooklyn. The group saw its budget slashed from $206,000 annually to $2,500 and it would have to close its doors if the cut stays.
State legislators are not hopeful about their ability to change the governor’s budget.
“In many areas we can only vote up or down,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a West Side Manhattan Democrat who is lesbian. “We can only add to an item if we fully fund it so we can increase something. We cannot decrease it nor can we substitute.”
Democrat Liz Krueger, a state senator who represents Manhattan’s Upper East Side, largely agreed with Glick, though she said it might be possible to move funds around within discreet areas in the budget.
“It didn’t actually say you can’t move things around within categorical areas,” she said. “If you moved monies around within the section that is health care, you can shift where the cuts are within health care spending.”
Reflecting the extent to which legislators have not yet nailed down what the ruling means, Krueger added that even shifting funds within categories might not be possible.
“Any cuts he made this year, it is not apparent to me what power the Legislature has to stop the governor from going forward with these cuts,” she said. “The court basically came back and said you have no authority over this. The court ruled that the governor does the budget and, even more disturbing, he also seems to do all the policy of the state.”
The one instrument that the court left to the Legislature is a blunt one—delaying the budget. It is also one that the public has grown increasingly impatient with.
“We’ve had late budgets every year with George Pataki,” Glick said. “The public doesn’t really like late budgets.”
At the February 23 City Hall press conference, Rivera said that is unavoidable given the ruling.
“The answer is that we’re going to have a late budget,” he said.
A further complication could come if the legislature and the governor agree on and enact a final budget that differs from the one first submitted by Pataki. If the governor does not re-submit a new budget with the changes that is then passed by the Legislature, a disgruntled taxpayer could sue in state court saying that the legislature had violated the court ruling.
“The only way that something could be changed that would meet constitutional muster would be for us to agree and the governor to agree to re-submit his budget,” Glick said.
Some community groups are saying that the Legislature may have more power than some members are saying and that the weak posture is designed to get the public to pressure Pataki.
“I think it is the case that advocates and organizations like Housing Works are pushing legislators to stand up and take many of the same actions that they have taken in the past,” said Michael Kink, legislative counsel at Housing Works, who noted that he was not singling out any one member of the state Senate or Assembly. “I believe that their powers are not as limited as some have claimed. Certainly raising the specter of a loss of power would stir up the public more.”
The AIDS service organization is one of roughly 100 health care, union, religious and consumer groups that have banded together to demand tax and policy changes that could raise billions for the state.
Kink said that the governor, Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, Joe Bruno, the Senate majority leader and the minority leaders in both houses have held a series of meetings on the budget and reached some agreement
“I think there is three-way agreement that they can add funds so if Gov. Pataki has cut funds the Legislature can restore them,” Kink said. “I think there is three-way agreement that the Legislature can create new programs if Gov. Pataki has neglected a new need, for example, HIV prevention among crystal meth users.”
Still, some community groups are preparing for a long budget process in Albany.
“In light of the recent court of appeals decision, we are aware that this year’s budget negotiations will be different from years past,” said a statement from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “Still, GMHC strongly urges the Legislature to add funds where it can, and to negotiate with the governor in order to complete full restorations for HIV/AIDS services and reject all changes that will harm people with HIV/AIDS... We will support a process that results in the best outcome for people with HIV and AIDS, even if this means the Legislature must delay the budget process in order to have meaningful negotiations with the governor.”