Groups work behind the scenes to get their interests into state budget plan

Out of the limelight of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget address and a handful of news conferences by stat

Out of the limelight of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget address and a handful of news conferences by state legislative leaders are the gritty and dirty details that produce a $132 billion spending plan.

Long before Cuomo presented his budget on Jan. 17, advocates, lobbyists and ordinary citizens had already begun reaching out to legislators and state agencies to advance their spending priorities.

“Budget advocacy doesn’t begin and end with the issuing of the governor’s budget,” said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, an advocate group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans gender community. “We have conversations year ’round.”

In the fall, those conversations focus on the state agencies, which is when they began to prepare their budget requests for the governor’s office and the state’s Division of Budget.

Jessica Vasquez, executive director of the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition of New York State, said it has a constant dialogue with the state’s Home and Community Renewal because it oversees state funding for her members. That close relationship did not lead to any special protection in the proposed budget this year, which eliminated money for neighborhood preservation programs. She said the cut wasn’t really a surprise, though. She characterized funding to her group as “low hanging fruit.”

Once the budget provisions are announced, the coalition turns its attention

back to the state Legislature, where the budget is reviewed and spending can be cut, increased or maintained.

“What we do is activate our membership,” Vasquez said. Individual members are encouraged to reach out to legislators to highlight their work by inviting them to any event that shows what they do in the community. Once the legislative session begins in January, these overtures consist mostly of meetings in legislators’ district offices on Thursdays and Fridays.

The biggest job for legislators is reacting to whatever the governor proposes. That continues until each chamber produces a counter-budget in March.

“What happens after the fanfare of the governor’s budget presentation is we spend the next few weeks deciphering what is in the budget,” said state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford.

That deciphering occurs largely with the support of central staff, the personnel who work for the party leaders of each chamber. They break down each section of the budget, with the Assembly majority’s analysis summarized in the “Yellow Book” and the Senate majority’s analysis piled into the “White Book.” Both books are made available about a week after the budget is presented.

Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, says the central staff is an invaluable asset that provides him with the “straight numbers,” starting with an approximately 80-page breakdown. “It’s all about reviewing the budget in detail,” he said, often becoming dinner reading.

Besides all that reading, state legislators also brace themselves for a steady stream of lobbying. These might be constituents reaching out to their local legislators or professional advocates who target legislators with a track record in a specific field or in a position of power.

Levi, of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said it’s natural for him to engage members of the LGBT caucus, but noted that committee chairs and ranking minority members of committees can become important targets.

This was echoed by Vasquez, of the Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, who said it made sense for them to focus on Senate and Assembly housing committee chairs. She said a majority of the group’s lobbying is spent with staff, but because they’re based in Albany they’re able to get time with the actual legislators.

Seward said that his Albany and district offices see a dramatic spike in meetings. This includes lobbyists for SUNY professors, because he has a number of colleges in his district, representatives from the Farm Bureau, people concerned with flood issues and representatives from teachers’ unions. “It runs the gamut,” he said.

McDonald increases his availability by holding budget round tables in his district. “I think it’s very helpful,” he said. “I’m talking to people who are at ground zero.”

Assemblyman Bob Reilly, D-Colonie, said he is constantly returning phone calls from constituents, who are sometimes surprised by how accessible he is. Additionally, he surveyed about 2,000 people on about a dozen budget issues.

While individual legislators are hearing from groups and individuals in private, the Legislature is also holding joint budget hearings.

The first hearing was held on Monday, with more than seven hours of testimony and questions on the topic of funding for elementary and secondary education. These hearings will last until the middle of February, and will include testimony from Cuomo’s commissioners and people who represent interests being affected by education spending.

Assemblyman James Tedisco, R-Glenville, was highly critical of this process, which he described as a waste of time for the most part. “The committee hearings are for show basically,” he said.

At the same time the majority conferences in each chamber are beginning closed-door discussions that highlight areas of concern, according to Reilly. The Assembly majority’s discussions include about 100 Democrats and the Senate majority’s discussions involve 32 Republicans.

Reilly said their meetings can go on for hours. In the case of education, Reilly was one of the speakers because he is the chairman of the Assembly libraries committee, which falls under education. He said there would be a lengthy focus on proposed teacher evaluations and the distribution of the increased school aid.

“For the next three or four weeks we will be meeting on a daily basis when we are up here [in Albany],” Reilly said. They focus only on certain issues that members raise. “You can’t discuss every dollar, or every million dollars.”

During these discussions members try to build a consensus for their cause. This means lobbying other members, which can mean getting colleagues to sign letters in support of their agenda that will go to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

“I had a rule last year that I wouldn’t sign letter, which put me in a fix because I wanted a letter signed myself,” Reilly said. “We will also send individual letters, giving our priorities.”

In the Senate, Seward said they convene informal committees that address the budget in eight or nine areas. Through this process the senators advance their local priorities and the committees come up with reports to the conferences in late February or early March.

McDonald said the internal discussions require members to be considerate of the needs of other members. “It’s no longer ‘Screw your project because you screwed mine,’” he said. “You show the people of western New York you care and other parts of the state that you care, and you get taken care of.”

An example of this was the restoration of VLT funding to Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County in last year’s budget. McDonald said he and Sen. Hugh Farley, R-Niskayuna, went to bat for the funds and brought it to their conference, where it was made a priority and eventually included in the budget.

Once the Senate and Assembly have developed their budgets, the two chambers come together for public conference committees that are supposed to reconcile the differences and come up with something the governor can eventually sign before the April 1 deadline.

Besides these public negotiations, there are private discussions among Speaker Silver, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, and Cuomo.

Reilly described this as necessary. “You can’t put 212 legislators in a room and negotiate every point of the budget.” Seward added that he felt well-represented by Skelos, who went into these negotiations with an understanding of his conference’s positions.

Tedisco was highly critical of this portion of the process, which he said exemplified how little impact the minority members of the Legislature had.

“They’re not in the room” Tedisco said. “The largest portion of the budget process take places without any transparency whatsoever. It’s three men in the room.”

After they emerge and each chamber begins debating the budget on the floor, he said minority members do their best to excite the public so they will advocate on an issue, but they’re usually just shut out in public during this final stage.

The budget is due on March 31 and goes into effect on April 1, at least by the book. For many years the budget adoption ran late, sometimes by months.

Cuomo’s first budget, 2011, was adopted on time and cited as an example of his effectiveness.

Categories: Schenectady County

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