Editorial: Secrecy in budget process hurts us all

Lack of transparency in creation of state budget invites fraud, abuse and waste

If you don’t want to listen to the state capitol reporters and newspaper editorial writers who’ve been railing for decades about the harmful secrecy of the state budget process, maybe you’ll listen to the guy who manages the money —the state comptroller.

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli earlier this week issued a scathing report on the state budget process, calling it, in a word, “opaque.”

Synonyms for “opaque” include nontransparent, cloudy, filmy, blurred, smeared, hazy, misty, dirty, dingy, muddy, muddied, grimy, smeary.

Smeary. That sounds about right.

The comptroller said the budget process lacked transparency in key ways, including the fact that minimal information was made available regarding overall fiscal impacts of the spending decisions. 

In other words, they were making policy without having the exact figures to let the public know exactly how their decisions were going to affect taxpayers.

DiNapoli also criticized the passage of budget bills based on “messages of necessity” from the governor that speed up approval of budget bills without a full public airing.

The comptroller finds this to be a violation of the state constitution, which requires budget bills be available for review for least three days.

Such “messages of necessity” aren’t necessities at all. Lawmakers have three full months from the start of the year to display budget bills, yet they won’t even reveal them to the public for three days.

That’s because they don’t want anyone to criticize what they’ve done. It’s wrong.

The comptroller also noted that while the budget includes $500,000 to improve transparency in economic development spending through creation of a much-needed database of expenditures and contracts, lawmakers didn’t provide details on how exactly such a database would be structured. That money is lip service unless they actually set up the database.

The comptroller also criticized the Legislature’s Joint Budget Conference subcommittee process, which he said was designed to provide public disclosure of budget negotiations. The subcommittees instead did most of their negotiating outside the view of the press and public — a violation of their obligation to spend the public’s money in the open.

The comptroller’s report also criticized lawmakers for abdicating their oversight role by giving too much discretion to the governor, noted the expansion of taking big ticket items “off-budget,” thereby reducing the ability of the public to review them, and chastised budget makers for creating lump-sum budget allocations that don’t includes specifics.

All of this secrecy in the budget process opens the door to fraud, abuse, misappropriation and waste.

It’s your tax dollars.

If you allow them to continue doing business this way, you have only yourselves to blame.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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