ALBANY – Day One of the public conference committee process by legislators over their dueling state budget proposals exuded a warm feeling: unity.
Lawmakers repeated that they were “not that far apart” and stressed the importance of getting an on-time budget before the 2014 fiscal year begins April 1.
The Senate and the Assembly last week passed their own fiscal road maps that moved some money around and dealt with social policies proposed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his original January budget plan.
For his part, Cuomo dismissed those one-house budget bills. “These (legislative budget) resolutions are really political documents to make a political point,” Cuomo told reporters Monday.
In reality, they are a bit of both: legislative shout-outs to political supporters but also a way to provide some ink to verbal rhetoric over what the separate houses consider to be their fiscal priorities.
The governor has his hands full with a number of his proposals, including one to link a property tax freeze to an insistence that localities cut spending by an annually increasing percentage of their total budgets. Localities want relief from state-imposed mandates. The conference committee process is intended to portray an environment in which rank-and-file lawmakers publicly negotiate details of the budget plan. In fact, nearly all of the negotiations that do take place are done in secret, and fiscal decisions involving rank-and-file lawmakers are minuscule in numbers compared with the talks that Cuomo and legislative leaders will be holding behind closed doors over the next two weeks.
Monday, the first round of public conference meetings began, and most were merely to restate the major plans contained in the Senate and Assembly budget plans. “I guess we agree to agree to meet again,” Assemblywoman Catherine T. Nolan, D-Queens, co-chairwoman of the education conference committee, told her colleagues on the panel after a brief session.
Lawmakers, though, say this part of the process follows months of open hearings and private meetings and is an important component to be able to get an on-time budget next week.
On paper, the sides look far apart on everything from tax policies to whether the state’s Common Core education program is addressed in the budget or whether the state should legalize marijuana for medicinal use.
How the sides resolve precisely how to give new property tax breaks without forcing localities and school districts to cut back on popular services will be a key issue for Cuomo and lawmakers in the next two weeks.
“I think we’re all in agreement that people need relief from property taxes. … And hopefully in the next week and a half, we’ll be able to come up with a compromise way of doing it,”’ said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.
“The concept is the same. It’s just doing it differently,” was how Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, explained where the sides are on property tax relief.
Decoded from its Albanyspeak: There will be much horse trading behind the scenes this week and next to give all the sides the political victories they need in an election year for the Legislature and the governor.