The Albany Budget Dance: The Governor Leads, the Legislature Follows, With An Occasional Stumble

A freshman Albany legislator was anxious about budget week and asked a senior member for advise, “Bring extra underwear and socks and a good book to read.”

Both houses of the legislative will be glued to their seats as the “three men in a room,” these days maybe four, negotiate the terms of the budget, including the “non-appropriation” add-ons that are incorporated in the budget. In 1927 a constitutional amendment was ratified, “New York State has what’s known as ‘executive budgeting,’ which means, in rough terms, that the governor alone has the right to submit a budget, and the role of the Legislature is limited to voting it up or down.”  Governors and the legislature tussled over power for years and eventually the matter was litigated.  In Silver v Pataki (2002) the NYS Court of Appeals sustained the power of the governor in the budgetary process.

Read detailed accounts here and here.

When it comes to appropriations bills, the Senate and Assembly can only reduce the spending the governor has proposed or eliminate it entirely. Legislators cannot change the conditions on how the governor wants that money spent. They can add spending, but the governor has the power to line-item veto those additions.

But other than negotiating, which— thanks to the     so-called nuclear option of post-budget deadline extenders pioneered by former governor David Paterson and broadened by Cuomo—means largely capitulating to what the governor wants, lawmakers don’t have a lot of options.

In short, they can stall, sue, or try to amend the state constitution.

The budgetary process is a political as well as a legislative process. Each side, the Democrats in the Assembly, the Republicans in the Senate and the Governor compete for political advantage. The Democrats want more education dollars for New York City and the “Big Five” and Republicans for the suburbs.  You might argue, why do the suburbs need more dollars, don’t they outspend the poorer areas of the state now through local property taxes?  Of course; however, their constituents want more for their schools in high tax, high wealth communities. The Governor is the ringmaster, he establishes the configuration of the budget, this year around 160 billion and the parties at the table argue over the size of their slices.

The Governor’s Excelsior Plan, aka, free tuition in SUNY and CUNY is part budget and the rules concerning eligibility are rolled into the plan. The plan was debated at length at a New School forum last week (Watch here). At the end of the panel the moderator asked, “Should we support a ‘bad’ bill and wait for next year, an election year?” With TAP and Pell Grants low income students already have all or most of their tuition paid for, the major benefactors would the families at the top end of $125,000 family income cap. The Cuomo bill is silent on the eligibility of Dreamers, undocumented students who are currently not eligible for TAP or Pell as well as whether future TAP can be used for transportation, books, etc.

In the 80’s a major issue was the death penalty in New York State. Each year Republicans and some Democrats supported a pro-death penalty bill that eventually passed both houses only to be vetoed by Mario Cuomo. The advocates cobbled together enough votes to override the veto, the death penalty became the law in New York State. A year or so later a Republican old-timer sighed, “What a mistake, it was a great campaign issue.”

I suspect the Dreamers issue is also a great campaign issue, the Democrats have already passed a Dreamer bill in the Assembly, the Republicans oppose a bill in the Senate. In the political realm one would think the Republicans and the IDC will bring a bill to the floor allowing the IDC Democrats in precarious positions to vote “yes” while Republicans in Trump areas can vote “no,” and the bill will fail, satisfying the elected and disappointing the Dreamers.  Politics and legislating are inextricably intertwined.

Leading up to budget week a daily announcement, “conference will be meeting.”  The conference is the caucus, a closed door meeting of the 107 Democrats in the Assembly. Members and top staff only, no minutes, no leaks to the press, the Speaker lays out the state of negotiations (or any other issue of the moment) and members respond. An opportunity for the Speaker to “take the temperature” of his members. The members have diverse interests, school aid, housing, seniors, consumer affairs, agriculture, wine-making and special projects for a local area, everyone wants “their thing” wrapped into the budget.

Under the rules in New York State this will be a Cuomo budget, he controls each and every dollar. Once again, the Governor controls the size of the budget pie, the seemingly endless bickering is over the size of the slices. Of course the replacement for the Affordable Care Act and the Trump budget (debated over the summer) could shatter the New York State budget and bring the legislature back to Albany later in the year.

As the sun rises on April 1 the members, bleary eyed, pizza-soaked will finish voting on a budget, probably not exactly sure what they voted on.

One response to “The Albany Budget Dance: The Governor Leads, the Legislature Follows, With An Occasional Stumble

  1. The death penalty was not passed over Gov Cuomo’s veto. It was passed in the first few months of the Pataki administration.


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