Three Men And A Budget
By Azi Paybarah
How important is the April 1 budget due date for state lawmakers, who for the 20th year in a row, are late? This year on that day, Governor George Pataki announced a historic financial deal: the purchase of more then 200 acres of upstate parkland to preserve “the birthplace of American fly-fishing.”
One hundred and thirty five days later, state lawmakers say they hope to agree on the state’s $100 billion budget. This year’s budget, the latest in state history, faced a new hurdle: a recent court ruling to overhaul how New York funds its 700 school districts, including New York City’s, the nation’s largest.
But since 1985, Queens and state voters have sent to Albany the nation’s second highest paid group of legislators who come home without a budget. In fact, a recent New York University study ranked them dead last in efficiency, saying they act more like advisors to their party leader than representatives of their constituents.
When asked if she knew what progress had been made on the budget, Senator Toby Stavisky shrugged at the notion and said, “We live in rumors up here.”
“The most dysfunctional in the nation” is how the New York State Legislature is described in a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law. According to the report, Reforming the New York State Legislature, “Neither the U.S. Congress nor any other state legislature so systematically limits the roles played by rank-and-file legislators and members of the public in the legislative process.”
The report cites two seemingly contradictory characteristics of Albany politics that add up to “legislative dysfunction”: their inability to pass a budget on time and their proficiency for passing thousands of pieces of legislation.
Associate Counsel Jeremy Creelan of the Brennan Center says state lawmakers are in fact “limited to cheerleading.”
It is impossible to determine whether they are even there to do that because lawmakers do not need to be present in order to vote, the report says.
“If I come in and there are 20 bills, and I’m in support of them, there’s no reason for me to sit there,” said Senator Frank Padavan.
“Certainly no one can quarrel with the fact that the legislature has not done it work. But it is unfortunate they [Brennan researchers] never came to Albany, they never spoke to me, or any other legislature,” he said.
Padavan’s Legislative Director, Kevin Webb, was quoted by Brennan researchers who spoke with him by phone on May, 28, 2003 about three bills in the Senate. Assemblywoman Barbara Clark’s Chief of Staff, Isobell Duffy also spoke in May to Brennan researchers, along with at least four other lawmakers and aides on condition of anonymity.
Outside The Room
What has evolved in Albany is a familiar dance: the April 1 date is side stepped, then smaller, temporary budgets are floated until a deal is struck between the Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Governor Pataki.
Each component blames the other while the budget is doled in piecemeal. “The Speaker has not been available,” said Padavan. Assemblyman Michael Gianaris said the governor “thinks it’s in his interest to not have a budget concluded on time.” Already 40 percent of the state’s budget has been spent during negotiations.
“Three men in a room,” is a literal description of how each of New York’s budgets are finalized, according to Creelan and other critics.
Missing from that room are the 209 other members of the state legislature – 25 of them from Queens, who defended their role outside the room.
When asked if he was “in that room”, Gianaris said, “No, neither was any of the 150 other members of the Assembly. You can’t have a negotiation with 211 members of the state legislature.”
Assemblywoman Margaret Markey said, “We have extensive conferences, they can last until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.” That is where “every member has the opportunity to voice their opinion,” she said.
“There was a time where it wasn’t as good as it is now,” said Assemblyman Mark Weprin. In a letter to the Tribune, Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette wrote, “Unless you have held a legislative office and have had this experience you cannot, at all, understand the process.”
“Any member that tells you they have some great role because they give their advice to the leader doesn’t understand their role as a legislator,” said a source familiar with the Brennan report.
Problem? What Problem?
Queens legislators don’t think a late budget is that big of a problem.
One lawmaker said on condition of anonymity, “It doesn’t impact anyone’s life. I have not had one single complaint about the late budget [from constituents]…They don’t even know it’s late.”
“How are you affected by it and by the late federal budget every year?” asked Lafayette and Markey separately.
Marcia Van Wagner, chief economist of the Citizen’s Budget Commission, explained how many key institution are indeed affected by the delay.
“[N]onprofit service providers, for example, have to cope every year with finding stopgap funding until they know how much funding they will get. The late budget is largely symptomatic of an overall political process that doesn’t work effectively,” Van Wagner said. “The worst consequence is that chronic lateness undermines the public’s confidence in state government.”
“Everyone thought the world would come tumbling down if we didn’t have a budget by April 1. We discovered that was not the case, so the pressure eased off. That was part of the problem,” said Stavisky.
Even the “throw the bums out” philosophy is not seen as a cure-all. “I think you can change all three leaders and you wouldn’t’ make a difference,” said Gianairis.
The Brennan Center agrees, opting for rules changes that can be enacted without approval from the governor or voters. But the Legislature passed a budget reform packet that, due to state law, needs to be voted on by a newly elected round of legislators next year, and then approved by the voters as an amendment to the state’s constitution.
The changes would create an independent budget office to forecast revenue, and would automatically enact the previous year’s budget if one isn’t ready by the new deadline of May 1.
“I don’t’ know if there’s a huge difference between April and May,” said Van Wagner. “That is just more time to deliberate. When was the last time they passed the budget in May?”