Thirty-six years ago, Mario Cuomo had just wrestled with his first budget as governor. It had been a difficult exercise for the idealistic new executive, negotiating against seasoned leaders in a legislature that was divided by party.
One late night, when the budget was enacted, Cuomo showed up uninvited at the chambers of the Democrat-controlled State Assembly. The speaker, Stanley Fink, asked him to say a few words.
“I gave you a budget,” Cuomo said. “You gave me back a better one.” The chamber burst into applause.
Richard Brodsky, a former state Assemblyman, tells this story to illustrate a point: the way budgeting is done in Albany today is very different than the way it was done three decades ago. And he hates that.
“It’s worthy of Vladmir Putin and the Saudi government,” says Brodsky, a Democrat. “It’s absurd and bad and at the heart of Albany dysfunction.”
Few people understand just how relevant Albany’s opaque budgeting process is to the functioning of their everyday lives. Every March, the governor and the legislative leaders of each chamber negotiate a titanic state budget, now accounting for $175 billion in spending. Funding levels determine the quality of schools, transportation, the environment, roadways, and just about every other entity, large and small, throughout the state.
Unrelated policy matters—this year it was a ban on plastic bags and congestion pricing, for example—are often rammed into the budget as well. The leverage undoubtedly lies with the executive branch, which is now controlled by Mario’s son, Andrew.
Andrew Cuomo is at his most dominant during budget negotiations because New York’s Constitution and subsequent court rulings allow him to be: once Cuomo introduces his version of the budget, legislators can only strike out or reduce spending items. Adding items of their own is very difficult. Additional spending items must be set aside separately and are subject to the governor’s veto. (The legislature has never overridden a Cuomo veto.)
This makes Cuomo’s proposed budget much more of the final word than either of the one-house budgets offered by the Senate or Assembly. Cuomo has more effectively consolidated and wielded power in Albany than any recent governor, including his father, and the budget, which he rushes to pass by the start of the fiscal year on April 1st, remains a key source of his clout.
Brian Barnwell, a Queens Assemblymember, hopes to change that. Barnwell is proposing a constitutional amendment that would make budgeting much more like the legislative process, when lawmakers and the governor function more as co-equal branches of government.
“Every year it gets more frustrating,” Barnwell, a Democrat, said of budget negotiations. “Enough is enough.”
Barnwell’s amendment would allow the Assembly and Senate to alter Cuomo’s proposed budget items and strip him of his veto power. The legislature would have the power of addition, not just subtraction.
So far, it’s difficult to gauge how much support the amendment will have in either chamber. Barnwell says he has a handful of co-sponsors but no bill number yet. Senate and Assembly leaders haven’t formally weighed in.
This is not the first time the state legislature has attempted to gain more leverage during budget negotiations. Sheldon Silver, who was the longtime speaker of the Assembly before his conviction on corruption charges, challenged Republican Governor George Pataki in court. The Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled in Pataki’s favor in 2004, cementing the executive branch’s ability to control the budgeting process.
A 2005 referendum to weaken the governor’s role in budget negotiations was shot down by voters. This has emboldened Cuomo’s office to dismiss Barnwell’s proposed amendment.
“We’re proud of the nine balanced and fiscally responsible budgets that were passed under this administration and the last time anyone tried to change the current system it went down in flames when New Yorkers rejected it by an embarrassing 2 to 1 margin,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.
Cuomo has been far more willing to inject unrelated policy matters into the budget than his predecessors. The tactic—placing both unremarkable and controversial items into appropriation bills—forces legislators to choose between accepting his proposals and striking down large portions of budget funding.
This year, headline-grabbing policies like congestion pricing, a reduction of cash bail and discovery reform, a statewide plastic bag ban, and a permanent property tax cap were passed in the budget. Though many of these were cheered by progressives and reformers, both Brodsky and Barnwell argue policy items unrelated to spending—even if they agree with them—should not be rolled into the state budget.
“Sooner or later, in this state, we are going to elect a Carl Paladino governor,” said Brodsky, referring to the incendiary Donald Trump-supporting Republican who ran against Cuomo in 2010. “When that governor puts an end to reproductive freedom in the budget, when that governor replaces environmental laws in the budget, when that governor reinstates the death penalty in the budget, you will hear the same outrage from people today … it’s shameful progressives are ignoring the heart of the democratic process.”
Albany’s approach to budgeting has long been decried in good government circles. New York State’s fiscal year is atypical; most states and municipalities, including New York City, kick off the fiscal year on July 1st , not April 1st. With an earlier deadline, the executive branch and the legislature take far less time to negotiate a much larger budget, leading to the so-called “big ugly,” when lawmakers vote on thousands of pages of bills they’ve barely read in the dead night.
Not all of this would require a constitutional amendment to fix. Cuomo and lawmakers, for example, could agree to move New York’s fiscal deadline to the end of June, giving everyone more time to hash out a budget.
While Barnwell’s proposal to equalize the budgeting process in Albany has tentative support from the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG), a leading good government organization, and has been quietly well-received in a Democrat-controlled State Senate more willing to clash with Cuomo, not all Albany observers are on board. Alex Camarda, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, another top good government group, called the constitutional amendment a “distraction.”
“The position of the executive in New York State has tremendous power in the context of the budget. At the same time, if they use it, the legislature has the upper hand outside the budget,” Camarda said.
Camarda expressed frustration that the Assembly and Senate failed to pressure Cuomo to pass far less controversial policy items in the budget, including reestablishing the state comptroller’s audit authority over state contracts. “They didn’t push the governor much and this is something he conceptually supported. The notion that they’re going to change the constitution and declare war just seems unlikely,” Camarda said.
The good news for Barnwell and supporters of a constitutional amendment is that Cuomo is not required to sign an amendment into law. An amendment must pass two recently-elected state legislatures (in this case, the 2019 and 2021 sessions) before a statewide referendum is put to voters the following year (2022). Cuomo cannot veto an amendment.
Outside of Cuomo, the most notable skeptic of Barnwell’s push might be E.J. McMahon, the research director for the right-leaning Empire Center for Public Policy. McMahon noted the agenda-setting power of the executive over the budget process dates back to Al Smith, the reform Democrat governor of the 1920s, and was enacted to control a legislature in the thrall of powerful party bosses.
“The legislature’s frustration is understandable. However, the desire to amend the constitution is misplaced,” McMahon argued, adding that he believed an executive budget allowed for more fiscal restraint.
Rather than amend the state constitution, McMahon suggested lawmakers stop bargaining on Cuomo’s terms: resist the urge to put policy in the budget, fight to move the fiscal deadline back, shoot down Cuomo’s spending items, and force him to come to the table with something they like. Like Camarda, he said lawmakers should flex their muscles beyond the budget.
“They choose to treat [Cuomo’s] budget deadline as real and play his game,” McMahon said. “If you’re going to play his game, you will lose.”