Facing a spectacular budget deficit, the New York State legislature has produced a good budget that will help New York City avoid Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “doomsday” scenario of massive cuts in programs. New Yorkers certainly have a right to be disappointed that the State Legislature this year relied on the regressive sales tax to boost revenue instead of enacting the commuter tax that most city officials had wanted. But, on balance, the agreement will benefit New York City.
The legislature restored many of the cuts to school aid, the largest attempted education reductions in New York’s history. We also restored more than hundreds of millions in state funds for Medicaid, public health and Health Care Reform Act programs, as well as to higher education.
What is most unusual about the events in Albany is that they have inadvertently accomplished what good government and legislative reformers have been pushing unsuccessfully for years: the end of the fabled “three men in a room.”
This year, by necessity, individual members of the legislature became part of the budget process. And for the first time in memory, the budget battle took place in the light of day.
Because Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver had to keep the members of their respective conferences united, daily briefings were given to legislators who were going to be asked to vote not once, but twice on the budget. (The first vote was the budget and the second vote will be on an anticipated override of Governor George Pataki’s threatened veto.) Speaker Silver, in particular, provided members with updates and actively involved them in strategy decisions.
For decades, the Democrats in the Assembly have enjoyed a controlling majority, and Republicans have been increasing their majority in the Senate. The huge majorities allowed leaders of both houses to confidently push through the budget deals they negotiated with the governor. This year, legislators in both chambers made it clear that there was no way they could go back to their constituents with the large scale cuts to social services that Pataki put forth in his budget plan. As the legislature struggled to create a balanced budget, Pataki walked out of the process, creating a unique opportunity for bipartisan cooperation. In an override vote, every legislator counts. There are 103 Democrats in the Assembly, and 100 votes are needed for the override. In the Senate, there are 38 Republicans and 42 votes are needed for the override. Therefore, four Democratic senators must join with the Republican majority to override the governor’s veto.
Suddenly, individual members who have long complained about being shut out of the budget process are being courted by their leaders. And important programs such as health care and education spending have been restored as a result of both Democrats and Republicans responding to the needs of their districts and the demands of their constituents. The more the public knew, the better the budget became. Without anyone planning it, the process has improved.
This year the governor did not speed along the budget process by handing down a message of necessity, an order that allows a bill to skip the customary three days waiting period before the legislature can vote on it. Expedited voting is such a common practice that long-time observers of the state legislature cannot remember the last time the budget was put to bed without a message of necessity. Without it, this year, legislators were actually able to read the budget bills before voting on them.
As favorable as many of this year’s developments have been, the real question is: What happens after the override vote? Will this trend toward reform last?
Real conference committees, which bring together the Senate and the Assembly, would be a natural outgrowth of this year’s conferences. Conference committees have been used sporadically in recent years. For example, in 1998, Assembly Democrats worked in a conference committee with Senate Republicans under the impression they were reaching compromises to pass the budget. Yet, after the budget passed the legislature, Pataki line-item vetoed all of the Democratic pieces of the budget while the Republicans made out like bandits. The system worked better last year when the Health and Wellness Act passed the legislature, partly because of the efforts of a conference committee. I view this year’s budget as a product of compromise and cooperation, much like the work of a conference committee.
Other reforms that must be implemented include a mandatory cooling-off period to allow legislators to read bills before voting on them. Real public hearings must be conducted to give the public the opportunity to speak on important legislation, encouraging more thoughtful debate among legislators, and freeing individual legislators to vote outside their party as well as to hire their own committee staff. This is an excellent time for reform and to build on the foundation of what has already taken place this year.
There has been a shift away from the “three men in a room” negotiations to two leaders who brought all 211 legislators into the room with them. While we are still far away from reforming the culture of business as usual in Albany, this is the first time in recent memory that members have walked away at the end of the day more hopeful than discouraged.
Scott Stringer, a Democrat, represents the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the New York State Assembly.