Imagine you are in school, a teacher hands the class a 1,200-page book and says you have four hours to read it and report on it. Welcome to the New York State budget process. Last week the state finalized its $154.9 billion spending plan, and did so using the most secretive, dysfunctional approach I’ve seen in more than 15 years in the Legislature.
Blair Horner of NYPIRG called it “the darkest it’s ever been that we’ve ever seen.” Citizen Union’s Dick Dadey said, “We have a government that operates in the shadows and makes big decisions on behalf of the public without any public scrutiny.” Comptroller Tom DiNapoli noted that this year’s budget “came together late in the process and outside the public’s view.” Democratic Senator Liz Krueger said, “I studied government budgets in school -- this wasn’t how it worked. You actually got to see actual budget legislation to vote on that was a whole package. We’re not doing that and I don’t think any of us can justify it.”
It took an all-nighter to get a timely budget, but it took public input totally out of the equation. When Albany spends billions of taxpayers’ hard-earned money, it has an obligation to inform taxpayers of exactly what it’s doing.
THE DUST SETTLES, AND QUESTIONS REMAIN
Providing spending information to the public didn’t happen, and providing details to legislators was only slightly more transparent. Members of the Legislature voted on budget bills without having any financial details attached. The release of information was so bad that at one point the Assembly Majority argued that specifics could be found – not in printed bills – but in newspapers articles.
Even with a budget in place, legislators still had to play catch-up about what was in, and out, of the final agreement.
- An expanded veterans’ pension credit was supported by both the Assembly and Senate. In a Veterans’ Day press release, the governor promised it would appear in the final budget. To the surprise of many, it was completely omitted.
- The catastrophic minimum wage increase will go to $12.50/hour for upstate by 2020. While some view this as less damaging than the $15/hour wage downstate, the budget leaves the door open to further upstate increases at the sole discretion of the state Budget Director to $15/hour, but provides no timeframe.
- $400 million in funding for local roads was approved, but with no information as to where the money came from or who would receive it. The budget passed on April 1. The distribution details were emailed on April 7.
- Despite endless proclamations by all sides on the need for reform, no ethics legislation was passed. The status quo has not changed, and in regards to the budget process, things appear to have gotten worse.
STATUS QUO PREVENTS PUBLIC SCRUTINY
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara single-handedly turned the Legislature on its head when he convicted former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on corruption crimes. His thoughts on the process by which the state crafts a budget could not be more on-target. Mr. Bharara once commented:
“When did 20 million New Yorkers agree to be ruled like a triumvirate in Roman times? It seems to me, if you’re one of the three men in the room, and you have all the power, you don’t tolerate dissent because you don’t have to. You don’t tolerate debate, because you don’t have to. You don’t favor change or foster reform, because you don’t have to, and because the status quo always benefits you.”
This year’s budget process was conducted in a deliberate manner to leave the public in the dark. The people of New York deserved an opportunity to review and respond to how their money was spent. But in typical Albany fashion, the governor and legislative leaders denied them that right.
What do you think? I want to hear from you. Send me your feedback, suggestions and ideas regarding this or any other issue facing New York State. You can always contact my district office at (315) 781-2030, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, find me by searching for Assemblyman Brian Kolb on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter.