EDITORIAL: Make budget passage more transparent

Albany Capitol building

For reporters, members of the state Legislature and legislative staffs, it’s a rite of passage.

Spending a spring night in the state capitol in Albany waiting on the political heads of their respective chambers to pass along legislation they’ve agreed upon behind closed doors.

For rank-and-file lawmakers without a golden ticket to the secret negotiations, they’re often called on to vote on massive bills they’ve barely had time to open, much less read or debate.

Some of these late-night votes are taken without lawmakers even being in their seats.

The marathon eventually ends early in the morning when all stagger out to their cars in their wrinkled business attire, squint into the new morning sun, and try to make sense of it all.

Missing from the late-night festivities are members of the public and often members of media.

Even if the live TV cameras were turned on at that hour, no one would be watching anyway.

That’s how the state budget and bills at the end of the legislative session are often passed in New York — in a harried rush, without anyone having an opportunity to review them, ask questions, offer suggestions and changes, or object.

Not only do they pass budget bills this way, they often now pass other legislation, unrelated to budgetary matters, that the governor and legislative leaders have been using for negotiating leverage.

This year, that’s likely to be controversial changes to the bail reform law, affordable housing and now possibly climate change initiatives.

Among the important legislation approved in this secretive manner in the past, bill sponsors said, were the NY SAFE Act gun control legislation, legislative redistricting, casino gambling, pension reforms and teacher evaluations.

As lawmakers rush toward yet another late state budget this year, state Sen. Jim Tedisco wants lawmakers to finally put an end to the archaic, ineffective and non-transparent practice.

He’s sponsoring a bill — the Budget Transparency Act — that would prohibit legislative votes in the wee hours of the night. It also would limit the often-abused use of so-called “messages of necessity,” which allow state representatives to pass bills without the three days of review required under the state constitution.

Messages of necessity are supposed to be used only in an emergency situation, not just so the governor and legislative leaders can rush through legislation without scrutiny and then sneak home.

Tedisco’s bill (A4723/S0048) would amend the state constitution to prohibit votes on bills from midnight to 8 a.m. unless two-thirds of the Legislature is present. It also would require two-thirds approval for messages of necessity and limit late-night amendments to bills.

We’re talking about finalizing more than $220 billion in taxpayer-funded programs and initiatives during a time when most people are asleep, giving no consideration for the rights of the people most affected — the citizens.

All this bill requires is giving our local legislators adequate time, when they’re alert and awake, to review legislation before they’re asked to vote on it, and for these actions to take place when the press and public can review and question the legislation. It’s difficult to have transparency when people can barely keep their eyes open.

Lawmakers owe us passage of this bill.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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