Foss: Budget process painfully familiar

The New York State Capitol in Albany.
The New York State Capitol in Albany.

Meet the new Legislature, same as the old Legislature? 

Democrats are firmly in control of state government for the first time in a decade, but this year’s budget negotiations don’t feel very different from last year’s, or the year before that. 

As always, the push to reach a budget deal by March 31st has become increasingly frenzied and secretive. 

Initiatives once touted as key pieces of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s agenda for the first 100 days of his third term appear to be on shaky ground, despite apparent support from the governor’s fellow Democrats. And items that once seemed sure to make it into the budget have met with unexpected opposition. 

In other words, one-party Democratic rule doesn’t ensure that passing progressive legislation will be easy, or even possible.  

Republicans weren’t going to sign off on marijuana legalization this year …. but if Democrats can’t work out a deal, the outcome will be the same as it would have been had Republicans remained in control of the Senate. The same is true of criminal justice reform, public campaign financing and a number of other items activists and advocates have been hoping for. 

Of course, it’s always difficult to discern exactly what is going to make it into the budget, given the lack of transparency surrounding the process and the often-conflicting information provided by Cuomo and legislative leaders. 

The only thing I’m certain of is that the budget will get done on time, and here’s why: 

Last year a compensation committee approved salary increases for legislators and agency heads. But the raises only go into effect if the budget is passed on time. 

Given how much money is riding on reaching a budget deal by the end of the month — lawmakers would see their base pay jump from $110,000 to $120,000 on Jan. 1, 2020 — it’s hard to believe legislators won’t do everything in their power to approve a spending plan for the coming fiscal year. 

It might not be the best plan, and it might make a lot of people unhappy. 

But it will get done

One thing that will make it easier to get it done is the decision, according to news reports, to drop marijuana legalization from the budget. 

Legalizing pot was always going to be a big, complex undertaking, and the state doesn’t appear ready to do it, as numerous questions, such as how the revenue from marijuana sales should be spent, appear unresolved. 

With the effort to legalize pot in New York clearly in danger, advocates are expressing disappointment in the Democratic leadership in which they invested so much hope. 

“A failure to legalize marijuana when Democrats control all branches of NY state government is a failure of leadership,” Kassandra Frederique, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. 

She might be right. 

But it’s always easier to promise big legislative reforms than to deliver them, as the Democrats and their supporters are now discovering. 

With the Republicans out of power, the Democrats have become the legislative roadblock they once decried. 

Which makes for a messy and frustrating budget process — one that ought to feel painfully familiar to every New Yorker waiting for to see what makes it into the budget and what doesn’t. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.   


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