Gov. Cuomo presents a budget plan (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)
The job of state legislators is to craft laws that protect New Yorkers and advance equal opportunity and justice. A significant part of that job is shaping our state budget, which funds our schools, our health care, our transportation systems, and a long list of vital other public services. During a global pandemic, this already crucial responsibility has reached a new level of importance. But, over the years, in the strange world of Albany, the role and power of the New York Legislature during the budget process has been stripped away.
It’s time to re-balance the power between the Legislative and Executive branches of state government, and take back the people’s seat at the table, by amending the State Constitution and passing the Budget Equity Act.
Government works best when the checks and balances inherent to our democratic process remain unobstructed, we honor the bulwarks of our democracy, and empower co-equal branches of government. This is true at the federal level, and also at the state and local levels.
Our democracy was built on the idea that no person or branch of government should accrue too much power. But this democratic principle is not upheld in New York State. This is because a long line of governors have increasingly used a state constitutional provision from 1927 to minimize the role of legislators and grow their own centralized power in the budget process. In addition to seizing dominant control over how to fund or cut critical services, they have used their power to further their own policy agendas by putting consequential legislation directly into the state budget.
When the executive branch puts policy directly into the budget, the language cannot be amended by the Legislature. Unless the governor chooses to change their own budget bill, the Legislature’s only option is to go along with what the governor demands or reject the budget entirely. There is no debate, no room for change, no room for anyone else’s opinions – most importantly the public’s. And for years now, governors have been pushing the bounds of their executive power far beyond the purely budgetary matters for which it was intended.
This end-run around the legislative process has been used to create laws without allowing for the open and public process that new policies deserve. For example, just this year, policies like whether nursing homes should be shielded from liability if they are negligent in their treatment of COVID-19 patients (which we both opposed) and expanding New York’s prevailing wage laws to include publicly-subsidized construction (which we both supported), have become law via this undemocratic process. There was no opportunity for debate or modification without rejecting the entire state budget. A difficult vote we were forced to take.
Surely our system can’t be so far from what our founders spelled out. But unfortunately, this is what our state constitution says, as interpreted by the courts.
As legislators, we are elected to represent our constituents, but their voices are silenced when we are not allowed to fully exercise our rightful role in making laws. Our founders recognized that the process of vigorous debate and discussion, with the full engagement of legislators from very disparate communities to be able to perfect the budget into the best possible piece of legislation, was the best way to ensure that all voices and viewpoints are considered before an idea becomes law.
No matter how you feel about nursing home liability or prevailing wage policies, we can all agree that they deserve as full a public airing, consideration, and opportunity for amendment as other laws. Indeed, preserving each legislator’s role in addressing bills like those is not only critical for ensuring the best process for public involvement, it is also vital for the electoral accountability on which our democracy is founded.
Our proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution would correct this imbalance of power. It simply requires that the Governor clearly indicate any non-budgetary policy changes contained within their proposed budget, and ensure that the Legislature has the authority to amend those policy changes through the normal amendment process.
We live in a time when more and more of the residents we serve feel disenfranchised by their government and worry about the concentration of power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. By passing the Budget Equity Act – which then would be voted on in a statewide referendum – we can give the people the more representative government they are rightfully owed.
State Senator Alessandra Biaggi represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried represents parts of Manhattan. On Twitter @SenatorBiaggi & @DickGottfried.