How alert and productive are you at 2:30 in the morning? Or five hours later, after being up all night?
Unless you’re a college student amped up on energy drinks or a regular worker on the graveyard shift, you’re probably a zombie by the time the sun comes up after pulling an all-nighter.
Now imagine you’re a state legislator, imprisoned in the state capitol as you await the bills that will come together to form the next state budget.
As your exhausted, blood-shot eyes glaze over hundreds of pages of numbers and legal jargon passing across your computer screen, you’re more likely thinking about passing out on your bed than you are passing important government legislation.
Yet that’s the way state legislative leaders and the legislators you elected to represent you in the Assembly and Senate put the final touches on a plan to spend $175.5 billion of your hard-earned tax dollars last weekend.
$175.5 billion. That’s $8,800 each for all 19.88 million men, women and children in New York state. (Hope you don’t have a big family.)
But spending your tax money isn’t all your state representatives did.
In the last-minute frenzy to pass a budget on time before the April 1 deadline (which this year triggered their big pay raises), lawmakers approved tons of new legislation, including a bill to ban single-use plastic shopping bags next year, a plan to add tolls on drivers going into Manhattan (congestion pricing), new taxes and fees, a permanent property tax cap and significant criminal justice reforms, just to name a few. Slipped into the budget around Cinderella-time was a pay raise for the governor and lieutenant governor that will make Gov. Andrew Cuomo the highest paid executive in the country.
For the most part, the final details of all this spending and all this legislation were worked out in secret by a handful of leaders of state government — including Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. State lawmakers were essentially left to vote for whatever came out of those closed-door meetings over a period of several days.
Few of the bills got much debate. And reporters could only announce what they’d been told, churning out copy in the middle of the night and into the next week as they figured out what exactly had been done on our behalf.
Running out in the middle of the night is what you do when you’re craving a pint of Adirondack Bear Paw ice cream from Stewart’s. It’s not how you spend billions of taxpayer dollars and pass legislation that will directly affect millions of people.
The system is highly secretive. The top-down nature of the budget process essentially neuters your state legislators from providing meaningful input. And by the time news leaks out about the details, no one’s around to take responsibility for what just happened.
As one state lawmaker put it afterward, there’s the ideal and then there’s reality. This is the reality.
But lawmakers have the power to change that reality.
That begins by being more accountable.
First off, they need to change the schedule for passing the budget to make sure rank-and-file lawmakers have the ability to read and review budget bills.
The Empire Center for Public Policy more than a decade ago recommended lawmakers establish a statutory timetable that would require the Senate and Assembly to pass separate budget resolutions at least 10 weeks in advance of the fiscal year deadline.
The budget resolutions would include detailed responses to each line item in governor’s budget. Then conference committees would be convened to hammer out the differences in the respective proposals.
The governor’s annual budget proposal is normally released in January, giving lawmakers less than three months to work out a budget compromise.
The Empire Center suggested that to give them more time for contemplation and debate of the budget, the state’s fiscal year should be moved to July 1. The budget would have to be adopted by June 15, which follows a schedule similar to that of other states. That way, lawmakers and the governor would have 10 extra weeks to formulate a spending plan. And they’d still get to go home for the summer around the same time they do now. That should make them happy.
Lawmakers and the governor also need to agree not to introduce legislation into the budget process that can and should be debated outside of the budget.
The controversial ban on single-use shopping bags is an example. Another was the bill prohibiting the release of mugshots and arrest records. (Arrest records were eventually removed from the ban.) It doesn’t make sense to complicate budget talks with legislation to legalize recreational marijuana or sports betting, or to reform campaign finance laws and criminal justice practices. And assigning complicated subjects like implementation of congestion pricing and campaign finance reform to unelected, unaccountable commissions is an abdication of their responsibility to formulate legislation. If they had more time prior to the budget deadline, they might be able to do this work themselves.
We’re sure there are other reforms that someone could suggest, or models from other states that New York could emulate.
If lawmakers and the governor do nothing else to reform the budget process, they should at least agree to discuss and vote on budget bills during business hours, not in the middle of the night and on weekends, when neither the public nor many lawmakers are attentive to the process. That alone would make the precess more transparent, although probably not less hectic.
This flawed budget process has been conducted this exact way for decades
It’s time for the governor and the lawmakers to remember who they work for, and to prepare a state budget in way that serves the people, not themselves.