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Citizens Union


Op-Ed: A Democracy We Can Believe In

SUNY Downstate Medical Center

I have participated in a dozen budget debates since taking office. Each year, I have worked with my colleagues in the Senate and Assembly to make sure that the executive budget is not balanced on the backs of New York’s working men and women, and that we remain true to our values as New Yorkers. Many years that task has been difficult, but this year, more than any other in recent memory, the budget has failed to reflect the needs and values of a vast number of New Yorkers. Therefore I voted “no” on the entire budget, as I will explain below.

Essentially, the dash to have an on-time budget  seems to have outweighed the need for a good budget. In order to finish quickly, we have botched many opportunities ranging from guaranteeing the stability and viability of SUNY Downstate Medical Center, to fully funding New York City schools and keeping our commitment to Campaign for Fiscal Equity, to making sure we take care of our most vulnerable populations — the developmentally disabled, the poor, seniors and children.

I am not conflicted about voting “no” on this year’s entire budget and taking the governor to task for breaking faith with New York’s proud history of providing a first-class education for our children, caring for the ill, and helping immigrants to succeed. The Statue of Liberty was put in New York for a reason — and not because we killed immigrant’s dreams, but rather because our community of New York State is where dreams come true.

While there is always pressure to vote “yes” even on a bad budget, there comes a time when one’s silence is a betrayal of one’s community and one’s values. Therefore, as a senator elected to represent a working-class district, a district of immigrants, a district with many underfunded schools, a district of progressive politics and values, I refused to rationalize voting “yes,” however easier that might have been — it would have been a betrayal of what my constituents and I believe.

In addition to the executive budget’s merits, or lack thereof, I think it is important to spotlight the flawed, undemocratic and largely unaccountable budget process that is the true meaning and cause of dysfunction in Albany. Again and again we hear that “dysfunction is ended,” Albany has been fixed, and New York is “open for business.”

Yet all that has really happened is that we have moved from three men in a room to four, and in the process guaranteed that there are no African Americans, Latinos, Asians or women in that closed-door and secretive process. I could go on at length on this topic, but quiet as it’s kept, we all know that the executive budget should be negotiated in public by representatives who reflect all of New York’s stakeholders.

That’s why I am calling for a constitutional amendment that bring back a more inclusive budget process, and give the legislature authority over the budget that matches its responsibility for the end product. It is time we stop making a mockery of our democracy.   

Particularly troubling for me this year was the fact that the initial executive budget made no attempt to save Downstate Medical Center, the fourth largest employer in the largest county in New York State — Brooklyn.

For eight months, Brooklyn’s elected officials pleaded in vain for a meeting with the governor’s office to determine how to keep Brooklyn’s only medical school open and avoid worsening Brooklyn’s health care crisis.

How can you even talk about a working government when one-third of the government refuses to even have a conversation about rescuing an institution that puts $1.3 billion into New York’s economy and returns $12 to New York City’s economy for every $1 spent? How can we talk about an end to dysfunction when the proposal made in the budget, after refusing to meet and discuss Downstate’s problems, was to suggest privatization as a solution to the problem?

Take a close look at the crisis facing Brooklyn hospitals; the ones having the most problems are the private institutions. Yet the undemocratically arrived at solution was privatization. Transparency and accountability create better government decisions for a reason, and the 8,000 Downstate employees whose jobs are on the line and the 400,000 patients who receive care at Downstate every year deserve to have their voices heard, through their representatives.

Voting on the state’s budget is my job, but my duty and my promise to my constituents, is to stand up for their interests as well as the state’s broader interests. And I do not believe that goal is impossible. I do not believe we must discard our dreams and values in order to have an on-time budget.

Therefore let me be clear. I believe that it is possible to provide all students with a sound basic education as ordered by the court in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity decision. I believe we can continue our historic role of partnering in immigrant success through the DREAM Act. I believe it is possible for New York's women business owners and those of color to have a fair chance at contracting with the state. I believe it is possible to right the wrongs caused by NYC’s “stop and frisk” abuses, and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, and have an NYPD inspector general bring greater accountability to the NYPD, just like every other City agency.  

Finally, I believe we are not, nor should we be, a rubber-stamp Senate. Our mandate is to deliver the change our constituents need, and to deliver it openly in the light of day, and not secretly by “four men in a room.”  This too I believe is possible; we can live our values, and as New Yorkers, we can realize our dreams.

Kevin Parker is the state Senator representing the 21st District in Brooklyn which comprises Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park, Kensington, Windsor Terrace and Park Slope.

Photo of SUNY Downstate Medical Center from Wikimedia Commons. 

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