Albany returns to the bad, old stinky ways of passing a budget

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For 20 straight years, the New York state budget was late — stretching well past the April 1 deadline, sometimes even into summer or fall. That streak was broken in 2011. It was then that lawmakers in Albany assured New Yorkers that the days of three men in a room — Albany-speak for a secretive process in which budgets and legislation are negotiated among the governor and the leaders of the Senate and Assembly behind closed doors — were over.  

But none of those bad practices have really changed. And short of some of the genders being different, this year’s budget negotiations were the 2022 version of the very three-men-in-a-room process everyone derided.

Don’t worry, Gov. Kathy Hochul assures us. “This is a very normal budget process.” 

Maybe that’s the problem: Normal or not, it stinks — in at least three different ways. 

The first stink: The budget is a week late. It didn’t take long for lawmakers to switch their verbiage about the budget from “on-time” to “timely.” According to Sen. Liz Krueger, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a late budget would have “no impact on [peoples’] lives or their budgets,” later acknowledging the Legislature isn’t “perfect.” 

People hold to-go alcoholic beverages.
The new budget allows the revival of quarantine-era to-go drinks.
Stephen Yang

Fine. It’s likely most New Yorkers didn’t even notice the budget was late. But this is a slippery slope. And for those of us who remember those years of late budgets, and the fiscal problems they caused for Albany and local governments throughout the state . . . we don’t ever want to go back there.  

There’s a practical deadline for passing the budget by April 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year. Crafting and implementing a budget is arguably the most important aspect of the Legislature’s job, so New Yorkers should resist the urge to passively accept a “timely” budget as being on-time. One day, one week or one month late is still late.

What makes the budget late? That’s the second stink: Non-budget items keep gumming up the works.

By all accounts, the budget process was going smoothly until the governor and Legislature introduced big, complicated, non-budget policy issues into the budget negotiations. In Albany-speak, that’s called a Big Ugly, or a bill that includes lots of disparate items. In this year’s budget Big Ugly: changes to the state’s much-debated criminal-justice reforms, a supposed redux of the state’s maligned public-ethics laws, a reauthorization of to-go drinks for restaurants and a myriad of other non-budget items.

It’s the disagreements and negotiations on those policy items that appear to have caused the delay, which makes it hard to believe Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s claim last month that his conference wanted no policy in the budget, which “is just about the state finances.”

Rendering of the proposed renovations to Buffalo Bills Highmark Stadium.
The budget had an extra $4 billion over budget to include room for Hochul’s proposed Buffalo Bill’s stadium.
Populous

The delay caused by the negotiation of non-budget policy items leads directly to the third and most foul stink: Late budgets create urgency, which provides cover for secrecy.

Under the cover of the self-inflicted late budget, nearly every budget bill this year is set to be passed with a “message of necessity.” That’s the often-used, little-understood procedure short-circuiting debate on this year’s $220 billion spending plan.

The state Constitution says lawmakers should wait at least three days after a bill is introduced before passing it. But that requirement is waived if the governor grants a message of necessity. Originally meant for emergency situations, it has morphed into a convenient way of passing bills before lawmakers — let alone taxpayers — have a chance to examine them.

But the budget is already late. There’s nothing that prevents the Legislature from allowing the bills to age, thereby giving lawmakers and taxpayers alike a chance to review and weigh in on them. That is, of course, unless lawmakers are trying to hide something. 

So, Gov. Hochul and lawmakers, we implore you: Please work harder to do things a little less “normal” — and with a lot less stink. 

Tim Hoefer is president & CEO of the Empire Center for Public Policy.



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