Unscripted Moments In A Budget By April Fools
March 27th, 2006

Its been interesting watching the debate over the enactment of a state budget. While a lot of the debate continues behind closed doors, it is nothing like it used to be.

Until the last few years, very little was known about the substance of budget negotiations. Like waiting for the white smoke to appear over the Vatican proclaiming the choice of a new Pope, New Yorkers waited for the announced results of budget items. And the wait was often hardly worth it. Not only were budgets enacted late, they usually resulted in millions in pork spending found in slush funds, increases in state debt and legislative gridlock on important non-budget issues.

The result was 20 years of late budgets and an angry electorate. So last year in an effort to placate voters, lawmakers tried something new. Some of the budget discussions were held in public.

In 2005, state lawmakers were able to agree on a budget by the beginning of the fiscal year for the first time in a generation.

This year, lawmakers are at it again making an attempt to get the budget finished by April 1st.

Legislators are holding public meetings in which representatives of the Senate and Assembly convene to discuss specific portions of the budget. There are 10 subcommittees that are assigned budget areas to resolve. These subcommittees hold meetings to try to come to an agreement on specific issues — for example state aid for schools, spending on health care and the environment. At each meeting 10 legislators 5 from the Senate and 5 from the Assembly meet to discuss policy options.

Once the subcommittee resolves its work - either by compromise or by not agreeing on a particular topic - it presents it to a leadership committee jointly headed by Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Majority Leader Bruno. This leadership committee debates issues that are unresolved.

Unlike real working meetings, these budget discussions are almost always scripted. No real work is actually done in public. In the public debate, legislators usually discuss their respective houses perspective on a topic, identify areas of agreement and disagreement, and then assign the staff to work behind closed doors to try to figure out a compromise. The public is not invited into these private meetings. But as you can guess lobbyists play a big role.

This year, though, you can watch the public proceedings on cable television unfortunately only on a digital channel.

So is the process better? Yes. In a democracy, policymakers should be conducting the publics business in public. How can the public be informed if they are in the dark?

Moreover, these public meetings do help move the process. That lawmakers must hold public meetings to report on their progress creates new pressure that motivates legislators to produce results.

And sometimes those few unscripted moments have an effect. Sunday night, for example, there was such an unscripted debate between the Assembly Speaker and a Senate Republican from Long Island. The debate was over how best to attack fraud in the states Medicaid program. The Assembly Speaker made a substantive and extremely compelling argument in support of a provision to grant whistleblowers the right to go to court when they identify fraud in government programs.

Whether the Speakers argument will change policy is unclear at this time, but the discussion clearly has forced a serious debate on this issue.

Is the process really open? No. Far too much of the real decisions are made behind closed doors. In addition, meetings are often held with virtually no public notice and there are no published agendas.

Are the budgets that are approved better? Hard to say. They certainly dont seem to be worse.

But the process is an improvement over the bad old days. New Yorkers should demand that candidates discuss details of how they plan to make the states budget process more open and accountable.

By on March 27, 2006, 9:38 am
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