When the budget deal is finally reached in Albany, average New Yorkers will have had little access to the details of the important items that Governor Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers are discussing. That’s because the long Albany tradition known as three men in a room continues.
The only difference from the decades long custom of three men in a room budget negotiations is that now there are four men in a room. The Senate is led by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats and so has two co-leaders.
Reporters, lobbyists, and advocates often wait for hours outside the door to Governor Cuomo’s office, waiting for the legislative leaders to emerge.
There are big issues being discussed, including how to fund a brand new program to potentially provide all four year olds in the state with access to pre-kindergarten, and a large package of tax cuts that includes a complicated multi-step proposal from Governor Cuomo for a two-year property tax freeze.
But, when asked about details, the responses are often vague.
For instance, Senate GOP Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver gave the same answer when questioned about whether a public campaign financing or the Dream Act will be included in the budget- saying they are talking about everything.
“Everything is being discussed,” said Skelos.
“There are no lines in the sand,” said Silver.
At other times, the responses are cryptic. Speaker Silver was asked about how far apart the leaders and Cuomo are on a figure for funding pre-K.
“We’re not apart per se,” Silver said. “Everything’s got to fit in with everything else. That’s the real key.”
Silver is referring to the habit of not agreeing on one part of the multi-billion dollar budget until all of the budget is settled.
Reporters sometimes try the direct, in an attempt to get more information.
“Is there any progress that’s been made that you can talk about?” a reporter asks.
“We’ll have a budget in place by the end of the fiscal year,” Silver says, as an aid pointedly says “thank you” and attempts to usher the leaders away from the media.
The end of the fiscal year means March 31.
Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, has been a long-time observer of the state budget process. Horner says lawmakers are actually going backwards in recent years, and that the budget process has become even more opaque.
“There were open leaders meetings where they would discuss the budget, there was a conference committee process,” Horner said, though he says some of those events could be “Potemkin” like.
“What I’m seeing now in the last few years has been a retrenchment toward less and less openness,” Horner said.
The legislature’s budget conference committees have held a handful of meetings this year.
Cuomo has re-adopted the closed door method of deciding budgets, and he recently defended the practice.
“Just because something is done behind closed doors doesn’t meant the process is not transparent,” Cuomo says. “You can’t do everything in public view always and have frank, candid, meaningful conversations.”
Cuomo says some of the so-called open leaders meetings, which often featured lengthy arguments, were a sham
“It was a silly theater that accomplished virtually nothing,” Cuomo said.
The governor says he’s released a detailed budget plan, and both houses of the legislature have passed budget resolutions, so the public should know where everyone stands. And he says the question and answer session with the media after the leaders meetings help provide transparency.
Cuomo seldom appears after the meetings, preferring to stay in his office.
The governor often touts his achievement of getting the budget passed on time for the three years that he’s been in office, after decades of late budgets. Horner says perhaps the governor has made a decision that ultimately, the ends justify the means.
“Despite what the governor says about the closed doors being transparent, I guess that’s only true if they’re made of glass,” said Horner. “The governor has made a determination that it is better to have a flawed process that gets the budget on time than anything else.”
Horner says it’s true that the public does pay attention when the budget is late , but he says the taxpayers should have more insight into decisions that involve their money.
Horner says one way to help avoid the crunch that leads to the closed door meetings: extend the budget deadline. He says most states don’t have to settle their spending plans until July.