Legislative Scorecard: Three States Still Budget-Less
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
With all but the nation's full-time legislatures adjourned for the year and most of the others on summer break, three states --New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin -- have yet to pass budgets for the new fiscal year.
In Massachusetts and Wisconsin the fiscal year began July 1 and lawmakers in both states are nowhere near agreement.
But New York's legislators are even farther behind. Their fiscal year began April 1, making the budget 121 days late. Last Thursday, the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-controlled Assembly finally reached a tentative deal with Republican Governor George Pataki. Lawmakers took a break this week, but will return to Albany Tuesday to finalize their spending plans.
As it stands now, New York's budget for 2000 will exceed last year's $72.6 billion by more than $1 billion. Despite a surplus of $2 billion, the deal calls for the state to borrow $535 million for long-term improvements, such as building new schools and improving roads. Lawmakers also plan to cut taxes by about $250 million.
Many conservatives are unhappy. New York already owes creditors $36 billion.
"We're relying too much on debt. I'd like to see debt reform as a part of this budget," Assembly Minority Leader John Faso told the Albany Times Union . But the budget deal was so long in coming, the Senate Republican leader called the settlement a "happy occasion."
New York has not passed a budget on time in 15 years.
A budget surplus has made life no easier for lawmakers in Massachusetts either. In fact, it appears to be making things worse. Despite a surplus of $100 million and a legislature entirely controlled by Democrats, Massachusetts' budget is far from final approval. State lawmakers have not taken this long to reach a budget agreement since 1975, but then they were pouring over ledgers swimming in red ink.
Republican Governor Paul Cellucci signed a one-month stopgap spending plan on June 28. As things stand now, he will have to sign at least one or two more. Negotiators in both the House and Senate told the Boston Globe they might not have a deal by September.
"We're grinding away at every line item and every dollar," Senator Mark Montigny said.
It's internecine warfare between old-school Democrats in the Senate, led by Thomas Birmingham, and centrists in the House, led by Speaker Thomas Finneran.
Although their totals are not far apart, the state House and Senate are deeply divided over details. The House passed a $20.76 million budget. The Senate approved $20.83 billion in spending. The governor had asked for $20.4 billion.
The Senate wants to spend $90 million more than the House on education. It wants no across-the-board tax cuts, but would use the surplus to allow targeted tax credits for the elderly and other groups. The House wants to cut the income tax rate from 5.95 percent to 5.75 percent.
Reprising a quip of his predecessor, Republican William Weld, Cellucci has accused lawmakers of "playing with their food." Other political observers point to the rivalry between Birmingham and Finneran, both of whom are likely gubernatorial contenders.
Wisconsin lawmakers have deserted the state capital, Madison, for the summer seemingly unconcerned about the budget stalemate between Democrats who control the Senate and the Republican majority in the Assembly. Wisconsin government agencies go on, operating under the rules of the 1997-1999 biennium.
"Because the government doesn't shut down, it kind if takes the urgency away," Chris Micklos, aide to Senate Majority Leader Chick Chvala, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Wisconsin lawmakers may not feel the pinch until as late as October, when schools start to lock in their budgets.
Wisconsin's surplus is estimated at $568 million. The state writes its $41 billion budget every two years.
Talks broke down July 15, when Republican negotiators walked out. They are insisting that the two sides reach agreement on a tax-cut package before hammering out the rest of the budget.
Democrats say tax-cut talks come last, as has been the tradition in Wisconsin for 20 years. They want Republicans to look at increasing education spending first.
"If you think all people in Wisconsin want are tax cuts, then we'll be Mississippi in a few years," Senate Leader Chvala told Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen.
Mississippi passed its budget in April. As of now, there are no plans for Wisconsin lawmakers to return to the table.