Many of the state’s more than 200 lawmakers are getting some much-needed sleep right now after pulling an all-nighter or two over the past weekend to get New York’s massive $175 billion budget adopted.
It was a new experience for many new lawmakers like state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, but somewhat old-hat for veterans like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. But one thing is clear — the budget process is in dire need of reform, from the top down.
To make that change, however, it really would have to start at the top — the state constitution.
New York’s foundational legal document was amended in the heat of the roaring ‘20s to ensure the governor — not the Assembly or the senate — had ultimate power over the budget. That was great for Al Smith, and maybe even his successors like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Lehman.
But as the years passed, the budgeting process became more and more complicated, with the legislature eventually taking the lead on how the budget was worked out.
In fact, it wasn’t until George Pataki — a Republican faced with some tough opposing views in the Assembly and senate, primarily controlled by Democrats — changed this. He asserted a constitutional right to dictate what would be in the state budget. And not just dollars and cents, but policy as well — something normally reserved for standard bills passed by both chambers.
The Assembly, then led by Sheldon Silver (who would later be convicted of corruption charges) took Pataki to court. And lost.
New York’s highest court declared the budget was the governor’s, and the legislature was limited to simply approving or disapproving it.
This puts a lot of power into the hands of one person, and essentially removes a major check and balance that comes from having an equal role with lawmakers, not a superior one.
The court decision wasn’t wrong, but the constitution is. Luckily, the state constitution can be changed. It’s just that the process to do it — and the political will to get it done — isn’t exactly an easy road to travel, and lawmakers seemingly have other priorities.
This weekend of all-nighters and heavy negotiation affects every single one of us as New Yorkers, but not only is most of that taking place out of public view, but we’re not even really part of the process at that point.
This is our money. We elect people to spend it wisely. And that means every man and woman with a say in this process should have a chance to be heard, and that no single person should have as much power as the governor has in this process.
A strong governor is great. But one too powerful undermines the democratic process.