The Budget Slides Off the Tracks

Posted by NYPIRG on April 3, 2017 at 12:56 pm
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After years of more or less on time New York State budgets, 2017 is now clearly late.  The previous two budgets were enacted late, but within a day of the deadline, with much work done by the March 31st deadline.  But this year’s chaotic budget process reminds New Yorkers of the bad old days when state budgets were chronically late – often months late.

The slippage from on-time budgets to late ones tracks the spiraling corruption that seems to have permeated all of government.  Why?

A good guess is that the excessive secrecy in governmental actions breeds a system in which the demands of the elite and the desires of special interests supersedes the public good.  The more secrecy, the less accountability.  The more secrecy, the less the public is involved and the more interest groups can wield their power.  Special interests thrive behind closed doors.

And there can be no doubt that Albany is shrouded in secrecy.  The Cuomo Administration has developed a reputation for giving short shrift to the state’s openness laws.  The secrecy surrounding state contracting practices contributed to the allegations of self-dealing and pay-to-play that led to the indictments of top staffers in the Administration.

The notorious weaknesses and opacity of the state’s ethics laws allowed both former leaders of the Assembly and Senate to think they could get away with using their public offices for personal gain.  Both are facing prison sentences as a result.

And they are not alone, dozens more have been convicted of corruption in recent years.

As the ethics situation got worse, the secrecy around the budget process increased.  The legislative conference committees, which are supposed to be open forums at which details of each house’s approaches to the budget are publicly discussed, are nothing more than a pretense.

The state Constitution requires that all bills be publicly available for review for three days prior to action.  But that restriction contains a loophole:  The governor can issue a “message of necessity” so that lawmakers can ignore the three-day review period.

That rule was designed to allow for action in an emergency, but it’s now often used to jam controversial bills through without allowing for public comment.  The most important parts of the budget are now forced through the legislative process with a message of necessity waving the constitutional public review time period.  Lawmakers are reduced to voting on bills that they have had no time to read.

For those who complain about the excessive secrecy and the too-little-time for public review, the response has been that it is necessary to get things done on time.

That response does not work anymore.

Years ago, the same excuses were used to defend lousy public accountability practices.  The state ended up having some of the latest budgets in the nation.

The mounting scandals and late budgets help contribute to a culture where anything goes and the public interest is ignored.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the budget doesn’t contain good things:  Apparently, there will be billions for drinking water programs, more financial aid for college students, and improvements in the way minors are treated by the criminal justice system.

But there are enormous problems as well: nothing to address Albany’s corruption, and apparent cuts to the state’s breast, cervical and colon cancer screenings for the uninsured, to name two.

Until the process opens up, how can New Yorkers have confidence that Albany is working on behalf of the public, not the interests that pay lobbyists and fork over the campaign contributions?  How can they be sure that public servants are acting in the best interests of New Yorkers if government is structured to minimize accountability?

There are a lot of things that need to be done to fix Albany.  Here are some:

  1. Comply with the letter and spirit of the state’s openness laws. No Administration should ignore Freedom of Information Law public records requests or set up charities in which it can funnel taxpayers’ dollars without government accountability.
  2. Create independent enforcement agencies. In recent years, the governor and lawmakers have cut back the powers of the state’s fiscal watchdog (state Comptroller).  Instead they should be boosting his power to review government spending and contracts.  And while they are at it, the governor and lawmakers should overhaul ethics enforcement by moving away from self-policing by political insiders.  Create similar restrictions that the Congress has on lawmakers’ outside income.
  3. Overhaul the campaign financing system. Limit donations from those receiving government contracts, as well as from  Eliminate the loophole that allows Limited Liability Companies to give far more than other businesses.  Create a voluntary system of public financing so that grassroots candidates can mount serious electoral challenges to entrenched incumbents.

Albany is broken, Governor Cuomo must aggressively take steps to fix it.  And he should do so soon.