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On the heels of the $10 billion gap that Cuomo needed to close this year, $2.4 billion may not sound like much. But this governor also has changed a key rule of the budgeting game, eliminating the DOB’s traditional assumption of a current-law “baseline” spending trend that also inflated the gap estimates.

Measured from Cuomo’s more realistic baseline, next year’s gap includes relatively modest increases totaling nearly $900 million for school aid and Medicaid, as required by the two-year appropriations that reflect Cuomo’s new spending caps. Debt-service spending and pension costs, essentially untouchable, account for another $450 million.

Assuming these areas are off-limits to cuts, that means the governor will need to fill over half the projected gap from savings in other areas of the budget. (True, he’ll be able to book more savings on employee benefits over the next several years, assuming the PEF and other unions fall into line with the CSEA pattern deal.)

Beyond that, each additional million of spending in excess of revenues next year will translate into another tough fight that tests Cuomo’s determination to stay the course of fiscal responsibility.

Even assuming the economy snaps back to the steady growth path the governor originally projected for the balance of his first term, he’s got a multiyear struggle on his hands before the budget emerges into daylight for the long haul.

Meanwhile, local officials across the state are waiting for a sign the governor intends to provide some serious relief from state mandates, including collective-bargaining reforms, as a followup to his historic property-tax cap. Without that relief, more counties and other municipalities — including New York City — will soon find themselves stuck in deep, dark tunnels of their own.

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