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A state budget grown in the dark

April 9, 2015
Editorial , Lake Placid News

Passed shortly after midnight April 1, New York almost had an on-time state budget, but on the day the spending plan was to take effect, we didn't know if it was worth the paper on which it was printed.

Most state legislators didn't know, either, because they hadn't had time to read and properly reflect on the bills they passed March 30 and 31. Less than 12 hours before the entire budget was to be passed, legislators and the public still hadn't seen details of the most contentious state budget bills. Those who follow New York politics know that's because they were hashed out in the annual April Fool's Day joke that is New York's three-men-in-a-room budget talks.

This farce of a budget discussion allowed Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos to put out a news release on March 29 saying there was a budget agreement without having the agreements ready for public review. Some details hadn't been released by noon March 31, which means legislators spent the day trying to make last-minute additions and deletions to bills they had only just received.

Ethics reform - trumpeted by Gov. Cuomo as a necessity in the budget - and school aid runs were among the two pieces of the budget that hadn't been released in bill form by noon March 31. The rush to judgment ended any chance to have a meaningful debate on the ethics reform measure or, frankly, to propose and pass additions that might have strengthened the bill.

This system only works because New York can rely on a governor's "message of necessity" to waive the waiting period bills must go through before a legislative vote. Gov. Cuomo doesn't use messages of necessity as often as past New York governors - 38 in total since 2011, according to an analysis by the New York Public Interest Group. Gov. George Pataki issued 144 messages of necessity in 1996 alone. Gov. David Paterson, meanwhile, issued 57 messages of necessity in 2010. Just because Gov. Cuomo does it less often than his predecessors doesn't mean the entire process isn't dark and ripe for reform. If April 1 is the drop-dead date for budget bills to be approved, then both houses of the Legislature and the governor's office should know the budget has to be finalized by March 28 each year. It's simple common sense.

New York's state government, time and again, has proven it makes no sense. So we agree with a proposal floated by a New York Times editorial in 2005 that would at least limit messages of necessity by requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate and Assembly before the message could be approved and used. New York's legislature should propose and approve similar legislation.

The alternative is what we have now, a frantic push to finalize a budget and its accompanying legislation before the end of the fiscal year. It is a process described in a March 17 column by Sacramento Bee Dan Walters as approving mushroom bills - bills Walters so named because they are "grown in darkness, nourished in excrement."

What a perfect description.



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