BY State Senator LIZ KRUEGER
Early on Friday morning, April 1, after a grueling all-night session, the New York State legislature passed a $157 billion budget for fiscal year 2016-2017.
Regardless of whether one thinks the final product is good, bad or somewhere in between, we should all be able to agree that the budget process has gone completely off the rails. This is not what democracy should look like, and without significant changes we will continue to undermine the integrity of our already shaky governing institutions and threaten the fiscal stability of our state. So I'm addressing my fellow legislators with a simple message — we have to do better.
The state budget is without a doubt the single most important package of legislation passed in Albany in any given year. Yet every year the process gets even less transparent, and legislators, the press, and the people of New York have less time to examine the bills before we bring them up for a vote. This year was particularly egregious - we pulled an all-nighter like so many procrastinating undergraduates, with the final bills not introduced until nearly 6 a.m., and the governor issuing so-called emergency “messages of necessity” even after it was clear that the budget would be late no matter what. What would be the emergency if it took a few more days and people actually reviewed the bills?
As I have said before, in a budget process driven by closed-door negotiations among legislative leaders, it is up to rank-and-file legislators to take a “trust but verify” approach. Yet with only a few hours at most to comb through thousands of pages of budget language, it is simply impossible for us to verify, and it's getting more and more difficult every year to trust. By acquiescing to this status quo we as legislators are abdicating our responsibility to look after the interests of the people who elected us.
As the floor debates made clear, even the majority Republicans in the Senate had very little idea what was in some of these last-minute bills. My colleague, the chairperson of the Senate Finance Committee, was put in the unenviable position of answering my questions by explaining she had “faith” that the legislation we were about to pass — which was not yet available to review online or in print — actually contained what was promised (and nothing more). This is no way to run an amateur bowling team, let alone one of the largest state budgets in the country.
The solutions to avoid this annual farce are simple, easily achieved, and well known. Messages of necessity should be saved for actual emergencies, not used to maintain a debatable reputation for on-time budgets; bills should be made available at least three days in advance of debate, so that they can be carefully parsed to root out shady deals, giveaways, unexplained “lump sums” and poorly thought out policy. And finally, it's time to end the embarrassingly regressive “three men in a room” system, and open up budget negotiations to the leaders of minority conferences in both houses.
The people of New York deserve better than what they're getting, and it's up to us, their elected representatives, to give it to them. If New York is going to continue to be a leader in the 21st century, we have to jettison a budget process that would have been familiar in the 19th Century. I still believe that we can rise to the occasion.
Liz Krueger is a NYS Senator representing the East Side of Manhattan, and the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Finance Committee.