WXXI Local Stories
11:35 am
Fri July 9, 2010

Lawmakers Ignore 2007 Budget Reform Law

Albany, New York – The state legislature is on hiatus for at least couple of weeks, leaving the state budget unfinished. According to Republicans in the legislature, there is something else the Democrats who control both houses failed to do. They say they neglected to follow a 2007 budget reform law, that, among other things, required joint legislative conference committees and more openness about the details of the spending plan.

Just a few weeks after Eliot Spitzer became governor, he and legislative leaders hailed a new law that they said would put an end to secretive budget deals. The new rules required governors to divulge more details in their budget proposals and the legislature to hold public conference committee meetings to hash out a final spending plan.

The first year, conference committees were held. In the past two years, they have not regularly met. Republicans in the State Senate enjoy pointing out that the committees have not really convened since the Democrats won power in the fall of 2008. Senator John DeFrancisco, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, spoke on the Senate floor recently. He complained that the minority party had been completely left out.

"There's been no public conference committee meetings," DeFrancisco raged. "No schedule for conference committee meetings."

Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson has said he was ready to go to conference committees, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said a fiscal outline was required first. Silver and Sampson later worked out remaining budget details in a private meeting, including which kinds of new taxes and fees to charge.

The 2007 law also requires what's called "sunshine" reporting to members of the legislature before a vote is taken on a budget bill. As final portions of the budget were voted on in early July, Senator DeFrancisco once again rose to ask Finance Committee Chair and Democrat Carl Kruger whether that part of the 2007 law would be followed. Kruger responded with a one word answer.

"No," Kruger said.

Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says public conference committees in the past have been largely for "show", and might not have achieved an on time budget this year. But he says the public might have known more about what's in the plan sooner.

"As imperfect a process as the conference committee is, it is certainly better than complete secrecy, which is what we have now in New York," said Horner.

As the budget talks drew to a close, most decisions were made in two men in a room meetings between the Democratic legislative leaders, or three men in a room private meetings that included Governor Paterson. Horner says there's little incentive for lawmakers to actually obey the statute, because there are no real penalties for violating it. It's up to the legislative ethics commission, which has poor track record for policing lawmakers, to determine whether the 2007 budget reform law has been broken.

"Because it doesn't have any teeth, it gets ignored," said Horner.

This year, the budget has followed a new route, as Paterson proposed most of the plan through emergency spending extenders. The governor's budget director made public many of the details of those plans three days before the votes were to take place.

State lawmakers have one more chance to follow the tenets of the 2007 law. The revenue budget bill, which includes the taxes, fees and other measures needed to close the remainder of the multi- billion dollar budget gap, was never voted on. The Senate adjourned after passing only the spending parts of the state budget. They have promised to return to complete the budget, which is now more than three months overdue.