Its time for reform; Budget process needs more time
By Deborah Glick
Over the past few months, the publics frustration over the New York State budget and legislative process has peaked. Understandably, residents are mystified by the states chronic lateness in reaching budget agreements. I am not only sympathetic with the communitys concerns, but I have been upset by the misinformation campaign that places the blame for this dysfunction on the Assembly alone and ignores important proposals to reform inefficient or outdated legislative procedures.
Contrary to popular thought, decisions in Albany are not made by three men in a room, i.e., by negotiations between the leaders of the Senate and Assembly and the governor. In fact, the governor has been using his influence and his veto to make crucial decisions about important budget and legislative matters himself. The governors view of reform is one man in the room. For example, the governor issued in excess of 200 vetoes over this years bipartisan budget. In addition, since Governor Pataki would prefer to have both the Senate and Assembly under Republican majorities so that he could more easily move his agenda, the Democratic-controlled Assembly is systematically the one he blames for all the delays.
Unfortunately, this same unilateral approach could bury an important bipartisan reform effort that would help ensure the budget negotiations were reached on time as well as encourage more transparency and public input in the budgetary process. Among other things, this budget reform package would kick-start discussions between the governor and the Legislature by as early as Nov. 15, and extend the budgetary timeframe to May 1 rather than April 1. This extension would acknowledge the fact that we are currently working within the same time limits as our forefathers over a century ago, when the budgetary issues were arguably much less complex. Indeed, New York State has one of the shortest timeframes for passing one of the countrys largest budgets. The advantage is that since taxes are due on April 15, this date change would give us a better notion of our actual revenues. The legislation would also create an independent budget office that could greatly reduce the time it takes to agree on available funds. Furthermore, to minimize the disruptions caused by any possible lateness in the budgetary process, the budget reform package would allow for a contingency budget to automatically come into effect if no agreement was made by the time of the deadline.
The budget reform package also aims to increase transparency by making important aspects of the executive budget, like those that pertain to personnel expenditures, disbursement of lump sums and technology purchases, subject to additional financial reporting making clear, for the first time, where much of your money goes. Likewise, all agency budget submissions would be made public prior to being submitted to the governor. One of the more exciting aspects of the proposed bill, is that it attempts to introduce an element of long-term planning. For example, the budget reform legislation would create a reserve fund equivalent to 5 percent of state funds to ensure continued cash flow in case of economic downturns, natural disasters or unexpected revenue shortfalls.
Since the budget reform proposal would require certain constitutional changes in order to be made law, it will need to pass the Senate and Assembly both this year and next, be signed by the governor both times, and be submitted to a statewide referendum next November. Governor Pataki has signaled his displeasure with a number of the bills provisions, and the New York Times recently wrote that Joseph Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader, has declined to send the proposed law to the governor. If Governor Pataki receives enough pressure, Majority Leader Bruno may overcome his unwillingness to embarrass him by sending the bill for his signature.
Everyone agrees that the states budgetary process needs reform. But in order to do so, bipartisan budget reform legislation must cross the first hurdle this year. It is up to the people to ensure that progress is made.
Glick is the assemblymember for the 66th District.