State legislators and advocates on Monday called for the Legislature to reconvene this week to pass legislation that would reduce the massive influence the governor's office has on the yearly state budget, creating more equal teeth between the branches of government.
The “Budget Equity Act,” sponsored by Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried and Bronx and Westchester County State Senator Alessandra Biaggi, both Democrats, would give the legislative chambers greater input in the final budget by allowing lawmakers to add to the governor's budget, rather than just reduce the amount of spending within the budget, which is currently their only option upon receiving the budget.
The bill would require an amendment to the State Constitution, which activates a wonky process that involves the measure having to be passed twice in two consecutive sessions, and then go before the voters in a November general election. This year, the bill will have to pass by August 3rd when the legislature wraps up. Then it would face a test in early in 2021 through a referendum vote in the November general election of that year. If it does not pass by August 3rd, it cannot be under consideration for a vote until at least 2023.
A spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation, but since the change would require an amendment to the State Constitution, the governor does not get to approve or disapprove the measure. More significantly, Chamber leaders have not expressed support for the bill. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment.
The bill was introduced in the Assembly in January by Gottfried. Biaggi told Gothamist she was disillusioned by a feeling of powerlessness in her first budget season last year as an elected legislator.
“Last year, it was very clear to me during the budget process that unless we change this specific issue, everything we do every budget season will never change,” Biaggi said.
After the governor presents an executive budget proposal early in the session, the Assembly and Senate present a counter-proposal where they can strike, reduce, or add items (added items are subject to a line-item veto). They cannot modify the governor’s proposed spending, giving the governor the upper hand in seeing their legislative priorities pushed.
Afterwards, the governor and legislative leaders enter negotiations, and if an agreement is reached, the budget is sent back to the Legislature for floor votes. If the parties can’t reach an agreement on a full budget, the governor can send back their original executive budget proposal. If the Legislature rejects that proposal past the April 1st deadline, the state government shuts down until a budget is approved.
“Our choice is either to enact no budget and let the fiscal year begin without any budget in place, or pass something that is acceptable to the governor,” Gottfried told Gothamist.
Under Biaggi’s and Gottfried’s bill, the Assembly and Senate would instead pass budget bills in response to the executive budget proposal, rather than resolutions; the governor would be able to veto the proposal, and the Legislature would be able to override the veto. The Legislature would also be able to modify the governor’s proposed spending levels in either direction.
Supporters of the bill said at a Monday Zoom press conference that if the Legislature was on equal footing with the governor in the budget process, then various perennial legislative fights would be solved, such as the fight to fully fund the state’s Foundation Aid formula for education.
They also say that the controversial Medicaid Redesign, a priority for Cuomo, which shifted hundreds of millions of dollars of Medicaid costs from the state to localities as part of this year’s state budget, would have had a harder time making it into the final budget.
And they say that if they had parity in the budget process, they would be able to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers, a move long opposed by Cuomo even as the COVID-19 crisis has dealt a major blow to the state’s finances.
Lawmakers argue that when the budget process is dominated by the governor to the extent that it is, they are not able to most effectively advocate on behalf of their constituents.
“In my district in particular, our schools are owed nearly $12 million,” said Khaleel Anderson, the 23-year-old Democratic nominee in southeast Queens’ 31st Assembly District, at press conference. “And we want our money, we want our check.”
There was renewed momentum for the bill after the state budget passed in April at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, with Cuomo exercising increased emergency powers but embracing large cuts instead of new revenue raisers.
“In April, New York passed what was probably one of the worst budgets this state has ever seen in one of our greatest moments of need,” Biaggi said. “The austerity budget does not reflect the priorities of the communities that we represent.”
Eighteen Republican Assemblymembers have so far signed on as cosponsors of the Equity Budget Act, plus Independence Party Assemblymember Fred Thiele, and 59 Democrats.
“It’s good to see my colleagues on the other side of the aisle supporting a measure to return budgetary powers back to the legislature where they belong,” said Assemblymember Joe DeStefano, a Long Island Republican, in a statement. “In the wake of the Corona pandemic, the governor assumed extraordinary powers over how taxpayer dollars are allocated in this state. This legislation will open up the budget process and allow our system of checks and balances to function."
The Senate bill does not have any Republican cosponsors, meaning every Democrat would have to be on board in approving the measure given its razor-thin majority.
With a special summer session having just wrapped up, it’s unclear if there is sufficient enthusiasm in the legislature to return to session just to pass one bill.
“It's an uphill fight,” Gottfried said. “But I've seen uphill fights prevail before, and this is such an overriding issue that we have to make every effort we can.”