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Editorial: Bad state budget process not acceptable

Editorial: Bad state budget process not acceptable

Nothing about the way the state budget is put together is acceptable
Editorial: Bad state budget process not acceptable
Assemblyman Carl E. Heastie enters the members-only lounge at the state Capitol in Albany, Jan. 17, 2018.
Photographer: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

We were going to let it go this year.

But if we let it go, it would be as if we were giving in.

If we hand our elected officials a pass just because we’re tired of tilting at the same windmill year after year with no change in their behavior, then it’s a signal to them that we accept that behavior.

And nothing about the way the state budget is put together is acceptable.

In fiscal year 2017, according to Ballotpedia, the state collected $81.4 billion of our money through income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, gas taxes, and innumerable fees, tolls, surcharges and fines. That represents more than $4,100 from every resident of the state. Those numbers are even higher now.

[Albany strikes deal on a budget that subverts Trump's tax plan]

For all the taxes we pay and all we expect back in return, the process for negotiating and finalizing the state budget is done in the same way it’s been done as long as most of us have been alive -- by a small handful of government leaders, meeting in secret, in haste to get done before Easter or Passover or some other planned break, often in the wee hours of the morning, and without public hearings or debate on the details.

You might, in fact, wake up this morning and learn the budget will have been passed, well after you went to bed.

And these secret negotiations go far beyond affecting dollars and cents.

The negotiators use important initiatives like legal protections for child sex abuse victims, reforms to our justice system, sexual harassment policies and legislative pay raises as leverage to get what they want out of the budget.

To get an idea of how political and narrowly focused on a small number of individuals this process is, just look at what some said was holding up the budget agreement all day Friday.

One downstate Democratic senator, whose vote is critical to the Republicans in the Senate, refused to support the budget because of his demand for less stringent curriculum standards for yeshivas, or Jewish religious schools.

Even if this senator was being used as a scapegoat by others with their own motives for holding up a settlement, it demonstrates that one lawmaker out of more than 200, on a personal crusade, can hold up agreement on a budget plan for our entire state. That is the quintessential example of a flawed process.

And state officials certainly know it’s flawed. How? Because they don’t let other, lower-level government bodies in the state operate the same way.

[NY rewrites harassment laws, but some say the changes fall short]

School districts and municipal and county boards all must negotiate and debate their budgets in public. All must hold public hearings and all must post copies of the budgets where citizens can review them. In the case of school districts, budgets are subject to public vote.

Yet the fate of billions of our state tax dollars is being determined by a handful of men meeting behind closed doors, not subject to any public scrutiny at all.

Sure, we could have let this go. We could have said it’s just the way things are done and we have to accept it as it is.

But it’s not the way things have to be done. And we shouldn’t ever accept it.

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