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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

Peril for the City

Cities New York City

Albany's reform' risky for NYC

THOSE who really know Albany � from governors past, present and future to policy analysts across the political spectrum � have fought hard against Proposal One this election season, because they know that its purported reform of the state budget inevitably would result in more state spending. But it's been little noted that Prop One would also strain the New York City budget.

First, a little background on the ballot item, dubbed the "Runaway Spending Amendment" by its diverse array of critics. The proposal is billed as reform because it would eliminate late budgets. This sounds reasonable, but it's not � because it would eliminate late budgets only by eviscerating necessary controls on state spending.

For nearly 80 years, the governor has sent a proposed budget down to the Legislature each year � and the Legislature can't do much else in the way of lawmaking until it votes on the governor's proposals. Yes, the Legislature can add new spending to the governor's budget, within limits � and, unfortunately, it often does. But even so, the governor remains in charge of the entire process � the Legislature must work within the governor's clearly outlined spending priorities.

Under the proposed amendment, the Legislature would simply ignore these priorities. As soon as a new fiscal year started without a vote on the governor's budget, a "contingency" budget based on the previous year's spending would kick in � and legislators would be free to tinker with that budget as they wished, with no input from the governor save for his power to veto the changes (a power easily overridden by an emboldened Legislature).

Moreover, local school boards would no longer be forced to wait for the governor to sign a budget to be assured of their share of state education funds. So very few New Yorkers would be paying attention as lawmakers quietly piled on new spending each year.

This is bad enough for the state, because if the buck doesn't stop with the governor, it will stop nowhere. But it's just as bad for New York City.

Albany already imposes huge costs on Gotham. How? Albany, not City Hall, sets pension benefits for city workers, and sets Medicaid benefits for city residents. The mayor's job? To find the money in his own budget to fund these lavish benefits.

Said former Mayor Ed Koch of his own experience: "It's the city of New York that pays the pensions, but it's the state Legislature that imposes them ... and we were constantly fighting and fighting and trying to prevent" new costs. "It didn't make any difference that the Assembly was Democratic and the Senate was Republican ... There wasn't any difference between the parties on the pensions ... because it didn't cost them a nickel".

Gotham needs a strong governor to look out for the city's fiscal health in the face of 212 legislators, many of whom have no connection to New York City but do have indelible connections to special interests. But Prop 0ne would sap the governor of much of his strength.

Consider: Even with a strong governor's office, city Medicaid and pension costs go up and up; Gov. Pataki signed a bill five years ago that increased city pension costs.

Under Prop One, with little gubernatorial power to temper legislative excesses, and with fewer voters paying attention during budget season, the Senate and the Assembly would be tempted again and again to sneak new spending mandates onto the city to please their supporters in the various unions.

Moreover, Gotham could forever abandon the hope that a future governor might use the power of the purse to force the Legislature to go along with badly needed Medicaid and pension reforms that would benefit the city.

The governor would be powerless to reform big-ticket items, not only during budget season but during the off-season as well. With the money safely in their own fists, legislators would have little incentive to cooperate with the Executive Mansion on much of anything.

New York City already faces multibillion-dollar deficits, due in part to Medicaid and pension spending that originates in Albany. City residents should realize: A vote for Prop One is a vote for Albany to hand down even more spending to City Hall � and a vote for wider city deficits and the tax hikes that often go with them.