Mail this story to a friend.          
NYSNYS NEWS: Final passage of $154 billion budget2016 starts though legislators complain they are in the dark about what it contains.
NYSNYS NEWS: Final passage of $154 billion budget2016 starts though legislators complain they are in the dark about what it contains.

By Kyle Hughes

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 31) — Closing out a process that critics said reached a new low in open government, the Senate and Assembly began final passage of a $154 billion state budget Thursday whose most vital details remained a mystery.

“We don’t have a financial plan before us, we don’t have a spending plan, we don't have the numbers before us ...We are right now in the midst of finishing up the most secretive, the most closed, the least transparent process that I’ve ever seen,” said Assemblyman Bob Oaks, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee. “I think that in the end doesn’t serve the nearly 20 million people of New York, the constituents we represent.”

“We’re dying to know what’s going to be in this budget if we ever get to see it,” Senator Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) said as voting began.

Voting on the first major budget bill, which funded public protection and general government for 2016-17, came just hours before the April 1 start of a new state fiscal year and it was unclear if they would make the deadline. The voting followed weeks of closed door meetings. During that time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie provided few concrete details of what they were planning to do.

The information gap extended to two of most widely publicized proposals, a $15 minimum wage and a new Workers Compensation tax to finance paid family leave of up to 12 weeks. Legislators behind the push were unapologetic, with Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Herman Farrell (D-Manhattan) telling members that if they wanted to know what was in the budget, they should read news stories with leaked details of the spending plan.

Online anger greeted Cuomo and the legislative leaders over the use of “messages of necessity” to permit votes on bills as soon as they are introduced. The emergency messages suspend a constitutional requirement that bills age for three days before they are voted on.

“Guess it doesn't matter what's in that budget so long as 3-men know what is best for us,” Dick Dady of the Citizens Union wrote on Twitter, referring to Albany’s notorious “three men in a room” power trio that makes all the major decisions on new laws.

“This budget process has been about as transparent and honest as Silver's financial disclosures,” Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin (R-Schaghticoke) wrote on Twitter, referring to convicted former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. The post including a picture of a small doll with the head of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who convicted Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in 2015.

In the debate on the first bill, Farrell said 95 percent of the budget is based on what Cuomo proposed in January and supporting documents are posted online. As for the rest, Farrell suggested the add-ons were common knowledge around the Capitol.

“Citizens have a very strong ability if they want to see of that,” Farrell said. “I know I put a lot of it in my presentations on the — using my iPod, all the things I put out there. I know you probably do that. So the people that really care, they have learned what 95 percent of this is going to be.”

“Let’s get it done so we can go on and continue to do other work for the people in the coming weeks,” he added.

“To suggest, and this is what goes beyond the pale, that as a state representative I’m expected to read the newspapers to know what is in the budget bills that I’m going to be reacting to…. that’s beyond the pale,” said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville).

He called the messages of necessary “a message of political expediency. Obviously you as the majorities and the governor don’t want us to read the bills. You don’t want us to understand the intricacies of the legislation you are putting forth. You want us to support $154 billion being spent of taxpayer money on a promise and a prayer.”

Critics have long condemned using “messages of necessity” to pass complex legislation, because in practical terms that means that only a few people know for sure what is in the bills.