In announcing his budget proposal Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo will start the state budget process in what could be a watershed year for the state and its taxpayers.
With all that’s at stake in the face of a $1.8 billion to $4 billion budget deficit — a threatened loss of aid from Washington, D.C., for the state’s health care needs, the desire for greater spending on education and infrastructure, the imposing loss of federal tax deductions for state and local taxes, and myriad other issues — the governor and the Legislature need to be as cooperative and forthcoming in their budget strategies as possible.
The first step they should take is to end decades of practice in which the governor and a handful of legislative leaders negotiate the state budget in secret in so-called “leaders’ meetings.”
The governor and the leaders in these meetings each represent de facto negotiating committees of their respective branches. There’s no legitimate reason for them to hold these talks in private.
If they were following the provisions of the state Open Meetings Law, which applies to virtually all other government bodies in the state, they’d have no legal reason for meeting in secret.
Why should state legislators and the governor decide to spend almost $160 billion of our tax dollars without letting us in on how that money is going to be spent before it’s actually spent?
That’s not right. We citizens need to know what’s on the table and what’s being swept under the rug. We need to know what the priorities are so we can make our voices heard. We need to know what’s being horse-traded for what.
Citizens need to hear what the governor and legislative leaders are considering when it comes to school aid, and how they justify an aid formula that unfairly punishes poorer schools to the benefit of other districts or other government programs.
If the leaders are going to raise taxes and fees on us, we have the right to know what we’re going to pay and how. Will it be through higher property taxes? Higher income taxes? Higher fees for car registration or state permits?
Higher taxes on gasoline or cigarettes? Why can they keep all that secret until the final budget bill is announced in the middle of the night three months from now, when it’s too late for citizens to comment on it and too late for anyone to do anything about it?
If state lawmakers and the governor are serious about getting the state’s finances in order, they should commit to keeping taxpayers in the loop every step of the way by opening the leaders’ meetings to the press and allowing the public to view the talks online.
Negotiations only need to be held in secret when there are opposing forces at work. But when it comes to the state budget, the governor and Assembly and Senate are supposed to be all on the same side.