The New York state legislature is on hiatus for at least a couple of weeks, and the state budget remains unfinished.
But according to Republicans in the legislature, there is something else the Democrats who control both houses failed to do. The G.O.P. says the Democrats neglected to follow a 2007 budget reform law, that, among other things, required the legislature to hold joint conference committees and reveal more details about 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 law 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.
Conference committees were held during the first year of Spitzer's term in 2007. But during the past two years, the committees 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 the 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,” he 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 a budget on time this year if they had met. But Horner says the committees might have helped the public to learn what was 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 by two-men-in-a-room meetings between the Democratic legislative leaders, or three-men-in-a-room private meetings that included Gov. Paterson.
Horner says there’s little incentive for lawmakers to actually obey the statute because there are no real penalties in place for violating it. It’s up to the legislative ethics commission, which has a 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. Lawmakers have promised to return to complete the budget, which is now more than three months overdue.
Click here for more WNYC coverage on the New York state budget proposal.