EDITORIAL: Separate budget from legislative issues for better state government

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The 2023 state legislative session will come to an end this week, and lawmakers won’t be back in Albany passing bills for another six months.

One of the signatures of the current session was the failure to pass the state budget on time. With an April 1 deadline, the budget wasn’t signed until May 3, a full month overdue.

For most New Yorkers, lawmakers and the governor missing the deadline is more a symbolic example of political dysfunction in Albany. It doesn’t have any real long-term impact, as the Legislature passes emergency spending bills to keep the lights on and the employees paid while the budget is being negotiated. (Missing the deadline does have an impact on the passage of legislation, as we’ll explain in a minute.)

What was most disturbing about the negotiations this year was the prolific introduction of non-budget issues into the budget negotiation process.

Both the governor and the legislative leaders of the Assembly and Senate — who essentially negotiate the budget in secret among themselves — used the tactic.

And it needs to stop.

Using non-budget items as leverage in budget talks is a problem for two reasons.

One is that the non-budget items serve as a distraction from the negotiation of legitimate state fiscal policy. If lawmakers have to juggle spending priorities with legislative priorities, they can’t devote their full attention to solving the state’s deep fiscal issues, such as the state’s high tax burden and debt.

As we said, the distractions kept them from passing the budget by April 1. Here’s why that’s an issue.

While the governor and legislative leaders are preoccupied with the budget, the Legislature is essentially in pause mode.

That means they’re not debating or passing much important legislation during that period, especially if they hear that that some legitative matters are being used as leverage during the budget talks.

With only a six-month window to pass legislation each year, that one month of inaction in the middle of the session is critical to the fate of other bills.

Secondly, if they’re negotiating non-budget items as part of the budget talks, they’re not giving those issues the attention and time they deserve for careful consideration, nor are they taking advantage of the full legislative process to address those issues.

Negotiating the expenditure of $227 billion of taxpayer money in secret is bad enough. But complex and often controversial issues like bail reform, housing, charter schools, minimum wage and funding for New York City’s mass transit system require input from all members of the Legislature.

That means holding public hearings, having floor discussions, sending amendments back and forth between the houses, getting input from various stakeholders, and allowing full public transparency so the citizens can have input into the lawmakers’ decisions before it’s too late to do anything about it.

When these issues are negotiated in secret and as part of the budget, all that debate and input is lost, resulting in legislation that may be insufficient, flawed or extraordinarily expensive.

And when legislators vote to approve the budget, they at the same time are voting in favor of the non-budget items that were inserted into the budget during the negotiation process.

If our local legislators don’t have input into important legislation, then they’re not fully representing our interests.

Legislative issues need to be negotiated separately from budget issues.

That’s why – before they adjourn until the start of a new budget cycle in January – it’s vital that the Legislature pass the Protect the People’s Budget Act.

The bill (S2062) would require that the governor’s appropriations be constrained by existing law and that he/she could not modify existing law outside of monetary changes.

The bill would restore efficiency to the budget negotiation process, ensure that important complex issues are debated fully in public, and provide our elected lawmakers with the ability to fully represent us by joining in negotiations on these issues and taking an active role in their passage or defeat.

That would result in a more effective, more responsive government.

And heaven knows New York could use more of that.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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