New York State

The powers granted by Silver v. Pataki

While the governor has more control over the state budget, it’s still unclear where it becomes overreach.

Sheldon Silver and George Pataki

Sheldon Silver and George Pataki lev radin/shutterstock; a katz/shutterstock

Nothing beats budget season in Albany, at least before COVID-19, as lawmakers, activists and lobbyists fill the halls of the state Capitol, attempting to get their priorities passed. Although observers refer to the “three men in a room” – the state Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker and governor – crafting a budget deal, the three don’t share power equally. The governor has had the lion’s share of control in the budgeting process since a 1927 constitutional amendment and the much more recent court decision in the case Silver v. Pataki interpreted the state constitution in such a way that further empowered the governor.

Silver v. Pataki is actually shorthand for two cases that were decided at the same time: Silver v. Pataki, brought in 1998, and Pataki v. Assembly, brought in 2001. In the former case, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver sued then-Gov. George Pataki over the 1998 state budget. The Legislature had passed Pataki’s appropriations bills, but then attempted to amend how certain money could be spent and put conditions on spending through nonappropriation bills also included in the budget package. Pataki said lawmakers unconstitutionally changed his appropriations bills – the Legislature can only reduce or completely cut appropriations that the governor proposed – and he rejected the changes through line-item vetoes. So Silver went to court.

In the second case, the Legislature said the appropriation bills that Pataki introduced contained language, specifically around education and health care spending, that did not belong there. So lawmakers removed the language they considered unconstitutional and entire appropriation items. But they then introduced their own bills – 37 “single purpose bills” to be exact – that appropriated the same amounts with similar purposes but different conditions and restrictions. Lawmakers argued they were within their constitutional right to do this after passing or rejecting the governor’s bills. Although he signed them, Pataki sued the Assembly so a court could declare whether what they did was unconstitutional.

The cases made their way to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, in 2004, when the panel of judges ruled on both cases. By a 5-2 margin, they found that the Legislature had unconstitutionally changed Pataki’s appropriation bills, but the final ruling had only a three-judge plurality due to the trickier question the lawsuits posed. Namely, what is the line that a governor can’t cross when it comes to including appropriation language that doesn’t directly relate to the budget? Although the plurality agreed that Pataki acted constitutionally, it agreed that the courts should determine a measure to figure out how far is too far. But the judges did not do this, leaving the question “for another day.” A decade later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pushed the envelope with the amount of control he exerted over the 2015-16 budget, with many looking at Silver v. Pataki as the precedent for flexing his gubernatorial power.