November 4, 2005

Vote No on Proposition 1

The Journal may not be making endorsements today, but I will. I'll start with an item that's going to be in small print at the top of the ballot, Proposition 1, a proposed amendment to the New York State Constitution:


Amendment to Articles IV and VII of the Constitution, in relation to the submission of the budget to the Legislature by the Governor.

The proposed amendment to Articles IV and VII of the Constitution would change the process for enactment of the state budget by (a) providing for a contingency budget if the Legislature does not act on the Governor's appropriation bills before the start of the fiscal year; (b) placing limits on the amount of spending during such contingency period; (c) once such contingency period begins, eliminating the requirement that the Legislature act on the Governor's proposed appropriation bills, and instead authorizing the Legislature to end the contingency period by adopting a multiple appropriation bill making changes to the contingency budget, subject to line item veto by the Governor; and (d) authorizing the Legislature, subject to veto by the Governor, to modify the spending limits for future contingency budgets, except that such changes cannot take effect until three years after enactment. The proposed amendment also sets forth certain requirements for the operation of a fiscal stabilization reserve fund, from which money could be disbursed in a subsequent year. It would require estimates and information provided by state departments to the Governor for use in preparing the budget to be available to the public. It would provide a date certain by which the Governor must submit a budget and appropriation bills to the Legislature. It would reduce the time the Governor has to make changes to the budget and appropriation bills submitted to the Legislature without the Legislature's consent from thirty days to twenty-one days. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

Broken down, this amendment includes some good pieces:

  • Two year cycles for school aid, giving school confidence in the state aid numbers for their budgets at least half the time
  • Greater exposure of state agency budget requests, tax collection, debt, and spending details
  • An independent budget office that could publish budget numbers without political pressure - though its leaders would be appointed by the Assembly and Senate leaders.
  • A fiscal year starting on May 1st rather than April 1st, providing more time to plan and more details about tax collections coming in

I could happily support any of those proposals, but I still oppose the proposition as a whole. Why? Because those details aren't the core of the proposition, nor are they the reason this amendment is being offered.

This amendment is being offered because the legislature lost a court battle with the governor's office about how the budget process runs, and the court decided that the budget process Governor Al Smith wooed voters into supporting in 1927 should operate as written. That gives the governor a lot of power to make changes - more than in most states - and basically the legislature wants that power on their side of the capitol.

Normally, I'm not a big fan of handing major powers to the executive. I vastly prefer divisions of power. However, New York State government is not a normal case, and the only player among the "three men in a room" that changes party control even somewhat regularly is the governor's office. The legislature has gerrymandered its districts severely to ensure that they don't fall out of power, though how long the Senate can fight changing demographics is a tough question.

Despite cries earlier this year that the court decision would lead to a more prolonged stalemate, the budget mysteriously passed more or less on time. It's hard to argue that the decision caused a crisis when a key sign of dysfunction vanished insted.

My hope next year is that next year will see New York elect Eliot Spitzer as governor. Given his tough stances on fiscal transparency and accountability, and the general lack of such things from the legislature, I'd rather leave the power with the governor for now. Even if it's not Spitzer, I still think there's more of an opportunity for the state to leave this power with the governor as we approach what will be a contested election year.

What's more, this amendment is the first of two, and this one is the messier piece, with its contingency budget raising as many questions as it answers. (The second is a more direct shift of power from the governor to the legislature.) This has driven one of my favorite state government watchdogs, the Fiscal Policy Institute, to publish an analysis. While they are more sympathetic to the legislature broadly, they also point out large problems in the proposed amendment:

[S.1, the language of the amendment] gets at the balance of powers question in a very convoluted, complicated, and inadequately defined way that would make the state budget process even more of a mess than it has been in many recent years....

S.1 gets at this dilemma in a roundabout way that would create an even messier budget process than we now have. S. 1 does not limit the Governor's ability to include changes in permanent law in his appropriations bills nor does it authorize the Legislature to make changes in such submissions. It only increases the Legislature's relative power in the budget process by taking the Governor's appropriations bills off the table if they are not all acted on by the start of the state fiscal year and giving the Legislature greater discretion in amending the "contingency budget" that would take effect in such a situation than it has in amending the appropriations bills submitted by the Governor in conjunction with his Executive Budget. But neither S.1, nor the accompanying implementing legislation (S. 2., which was enacted over the Governor's veto language and which will take effect if the amendments to the Constitution proposed by S. 1 are approved by the state), assign responsibility to anyone for preparing the "contingency budget," let alone in a timely fashion. Moreover, S. 1 has internally inconsistent language regarding the contingency budget - referring to it in one sentence as being based on the prior year's appropriations and in another sentence as being based on the prior year's disbursements. And, S. 2 makes the situation even less clear.

S. 1., as explained in this memorandum, is flawed in significant and substantial ways.

Given the state of New York politics today, I don't see how the supporters of this proposition can call it reform. I'll be voting against it, and I urge everyone else to vote against it.

(Incidentally, Governor Pataki, Attorney General Spitzer, and former Governors Mario Cuomo and Hugh Carey all feel the same way.)

Posted by simon at November 4, 2005 9:15 AM in , ,
Note on photos