Get ready to be duped by Albany.
Plans are under way to adopt a New York state budget on time by April 1, which will be heralded in press releases and TV sound bites as a historic accomplishment. An on-time budget will look good politically for legislators and a beleaguered Gov. David Paterson, but it will likely cost New Yorkers dearly, now and for years to come.
It now appears that what legislators insist will be a tough plan for tough times is shaping up to be devoid of most of the spending cuts Paterson has said are essential.
“If this budget is on time, it virtually guarantees a dreadful product,'' said E.J. McMahon, director of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. “It means you aren't making the hard decisions.''
“This could be on a par with some of the biggest budget increases in years,'' he said. “If people are still big enough suckers to believe it's a good budget because it's on time, I'm sure the Legislature will want New Yorkers to think it's got to be good because it's on time -- even as they claim they made the hard decisions.''
Senate Minority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, estimates what was supposed to be a flat budget will increase spending 7 percent to 8 percent. Lobbyists privately expect a 6 percent or 7 percent increase over the proposed $120 billion.
New Yorkers will likely pay for it through one of a number of proposals to increase the income tax, including one on families making more than $250,000 a year, and a possible sales tax increase.
Paterson and legislative leaders say the predictions are premature. But they aren't saying they are wrong. And they're all saying that an on-time budget is important.
The Democratic governor is staking much of his often troubled 12-month administration on getting a budget on time as he looks to the 2010 elections. He also knows missing it can hurt the state's credit rating and increase interest rates and borrowing costs by millions of dollars.
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith may have even more pressure to agree to a budget on time. The Queens Democrat has long pushed for spending and tax restraint, but he presides over a restive majority won in November's elections after decades of GOP rule. And a still angry Republican minority is showing no signs of helping him.
As for the Assembly Democrats, there is comfort in the unmatched power of Silver and their supermajority to get both an on-time budget and one that avoids cuts to their highest priorities -- education and health care.
The April 1 budget will be based on deals cut almost exclusively in back rooms without a Republican in sight and out of view of New Yorkers who will foot the bill. At this point, it will be a more secretive process than ever, despite the early start Paterson gave the Legislature and his vows for greater transparency.
“It sounds exactly how they are describing things to me: That product trumps process,'' said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “And it's exactly what Paterson said last year when the budget was late. He said, yes, there may be excessive spending, but the people need to see their government working. You can always find an excuse.''
“The point is,'' Horner said, “it's the public's money and not their money.''
It may look like little is happening in Albany, where so far few deals or even the positions of the Assembly and Senate are emerging. The public comments are always on script: These are tough times and deep painful cuts are needed; belts must be tightened; leaders must stand up for future generations.
But McMahon says to look closer at that celebrated on-time budget.
“Think about the Capitol full of people furiously digging a hole for 2011,'' he said. “The difference between the leaders' rhetoric and what is going on has never been greater.''