Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Aries Dela Cruz, 347-683-3020
Dick Dadey, 917-709-2896
Positive Actions Include no Messages of Necessity and Open Budget Website
Role for Rank-and-File Legislators and
Use of Conference Committees Still Needs Strengthening
With the state budget process expected to be finalized this week, Citizens Union gives this year's state budget process mixed reviews. Given past practice, it is commendable that no messages of necessity were utilized, giving legislators, the media and the public three days to read the budget bills and understand the important policy and financial decisions they contain. We are concerned, however, that the Senate will vote on the final budget bills during Passover and after midnight tonight when most New Yorkers are asleep and unable to watch or listen to what is arguably the most significant action this year of the state legislature.
Citizens Union found positive elements of the budget process, and commends the Governor and the Legislature for their work in these following areas, which represent the culmination of months of work to reach consensus between the legislative leaders and the Governor, and the constituencies they represent, on many of the critical financial issues facing the State of New York.
Thumbs Up
  • No messages of necessity were utilized in the passage of the state budget. This expected, but not always used, fundamental level of transparency is essential to the practice of good and effective government. Citizens Union has voiced legitimate concerns with the use of messages of necessity on critical votes on major issues in recent years, most recently for the passage of the SAFE Act, which is being revisited in part because of the lack of public transparency and rushed manner in which the legislation was enacted. We are therefore encouraged to see the three-day aging process remain intact for this year's budget bills, which arguably contain the most important policy decisions of state government that are voted on in any year. Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders however have used fewer messages of necessity than past governors and legislatures - 34 times in his first two years (29 in 2011 and 5 in 2012).
  • Expected early passage of the state budget. Given the stateís long history of late budgets, Citizens Union is pleased that for the third year in a row, the state budget is on track for passing on time. While this should be commonplace, the reality is it has not occurred for decades. Having a state budget passed on time allows the Governor and Legislature to turn their attention toward other pressing issues and be productive in meeting the needs of New Yorkers in the remaining three months of the legislative session.
  • Creation of the Open Budget website. Citizens Union commends Governor Cuomo for creating the Open Budget Website, a single web portal for state budget data. Through this portal, the public will be better able to understand the budget and independently perform their own analysis by accessing current and historic budget data in user-friendly formats, including spreadsheets and visualizations.
  • Removal of language that would limit local government reporting. Citizens Union is pleased that language originally proposed by the Governor in the Public Protection and General Government Article VII bill which would have eliminated important reporting requirements for local governments and school districts to the State Comptroller has been removed. Citizens Union believes that the examination of reporting requirements should be done in a deliberative manner, with public input and approval by the legislature.
In spite of good deeds being done, Citizens Union remains concerned about certain elements of this year's budget process. The spirit of the reforms enacted in 2007 regarding creating a more deliberative and formal budget process has not been fully realized, though in some cases the letter of the law may have been followed. We believe that the most effective public policies are those that benefit from a transparent and deliberative legislative process. While some of the issues decided in the budget have been discussed publicly in the budget hearings held earlier this year like the raising of the minimum wage, others would have benefited from a more robust public airing such as the unexpected tax rebates to families and extension of the temporary higher income tax rates on high income earners. Below are the elements of the budget process which Citizens Union believes need improvement in future years.
Thumbs Down
  • The use of Conference Committees this year was largely perfunctory, with Committees not providing needed legislative deliberation. While Conference Committees did meet, some - such as the Education Subcommittee - did not fully close out their proceedings, and the meetings were exceptionally brief and too short. Additionally, "table targets" of spending were announced on March 14th, so Conference Committee meetings prior to this date had little to discuss. Rank-and-file members of the legislature should also have a more meaningful role in publicly discussing all spending not simply expenditures amounting to less than one half of one percent of overall spending.
  • Minority Conferences have little role in the process. While the typical "three men in a room" expanded to four due to the co-leadership of the State Senate, the minority conferences in both houses continued to have little role, in part due to the lack of robust discussion at Conference Committee meetings.
  • Reports of legislative changes required by the 2007 reforms were not provided to Senators on Sunday when the Senate began voting. The 2007 budget reform law requires that before voting on appropriations bill, each house must provide on members' desks reports providing members a summary of the legislative revisions. The Senate on Sunday voted on the Capital Projects Budget appropriations bill, as well as the Public Protection and General Government Article VII, and Transportation, Economic Development and Environmental Conservation Article VII bills, but the reports for these bills were not provided as required by law. It was stated, however, that these reports would be provided later in the week for subsequent votes on other budget-related legislation.
  • Budget documents do not provide the public a detailed presentation of spending and policy proposals. The Executive Budget presentation documents do not provide full enough detail regarding proposed spending and policy decisions, in particular for individual program areas or agencies. The amount of information in the "Agency Presentations" documents provided by the Division of the Budget in particular has decreased in recent years, leading to less public transparency rather than more. Additionally, the public is not provided with a full accounting of legislative changes to the budget prior to its passage.
Citizens Union actively monitors the budget process, having released in 2008 a series of recommendations to improve transparency, integrity, and efficiency of the state budget process. Citizens Union has also released budget reform report cards in 2012 and 2009 that review compliance with the 2007 reforms and further improvements to the budget process. We expect to release a comprehensive report card more fully evaluating the Governorís and Legislatureís performance following completion of this yearís state budget process.

Citizens Union is a nonpartisan good government group dedicated to making democracy work for all New Yorkers. Citizens Union serves as a civic watchdog, combating corruption and fighting for political reform. We work to ensure fair and open elections, honest and efficient government, and a civically-engaged public.

299 Broadway, Suite 700 | New York, NY 10007 US

This email was sent to . To ensure that you continue receiving our emails, please add us to your
address book or safe list.