Albany Primer: Why Does NYC Get Screwed at Budget Time?

Why does New York City do so poorly compared to the rest of the State on school aid and legislative pork? Let’s look at the budget process; what follows may seem a simplistic rendering of a complicated series of events, but actually gives more thought to the process than that exercised by the majority of legislators in any given year (which is sad, because I wrote the whole thing while waiting for my toast to pop).

The New York State Constitution’s budget process is a Robert Moses created contrivance whose purpose is to rob the legislature of its legislative powers. The legislature has responded in many years by exercising the one constitutional power it has, which is to do nothing. The current governor has far greater constitutional powers, but regards lethargy and sloth as a matter of personal religious practice, rather than as constitutional law. But, this merely has slowed the process in some (actually many) years. In good years and bad, the basic process remains the same.

Every year the Governor proposes his budget, low balling many items he knows the legislature will insist upon restoring, so he has leverage to get what he really wants. Cuomo did this all the time, but Pataki, who actually wanted more cuts (except when he didn’t), did it more often.

The Assembly then restores all the social service cuts, adds a few bucks for member items, and draws its line in the sand.
The Senate could care less about social services. Those who would expect their Republican philosophy to make them less inclined to waste money misunderstand Republican ideology; because Republicans consider all government programs a waste of money, it’s far easier for them to shrug their shoulders, smile and treat the budget like a week-end in Vegas (“What does it matter what we waste our money on? The important thing is to have fun wasting it”). Thus, the Senate Republican bottom line is getting the same amount added that the Assembly gets (“Why should those humps get more?”) and using it on prisons (which are seen upstate as a jobs program), school aid (not to improve the schools, but as a form of property tax relief) and, using whatever's leftover (a lot) for member items (“Because, now that we got this money, we’ve got to spend in on something, and on what better than our re-elections?”). The amount of Senate members items is so much higher than the Assembly’s (which has squandered most of its money on human needs, rather than state-funded little league uniforms), and divided among so fewer members, that many Democratic Senators (in the minority) get more money than many Democratic Assembly members (in the majority).

School aid and members items are thus weighted wildly disproportionately to communities with Republican Senators. The Senate's fiscal experts then come up with a formula which will generate the amounts already agreed upon (for the school aid; no one even attempts to rationalize the member items; how could they?), and there's your budget. There is no doubt that Assembly Democratic have been complicit, or at the very least, acquiescent, in these disparities. The partisan distribution of State Senators accounts for the aid discrepancy, and nothing will cure that but ousting the Senate Republicans. I suppose the few City districts with Republican Senators can claim to benefit from the system, as the coffers of programs in these neighborhoods overflow with member-item funds, for which the Republican Senators happily share credit with local Democratic pols, who then take a dive (or actually endorse the Republican) at election time. Of course, those member-item dollars are a mug's game, pennywise and pound foolish; your school gets a few new computers, while it still gets screwed to the wall on its overall funding. One must conclude that a Democratic State Senate would go a long way in dealing with this problem.

Is there a risk in setting up what would likely be the first one-party controlled government in Albany since 1974, and the first one-party Democratic controlled state government since the 30s? Obviously, because so may people are scared about it. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver certainly prefers having a Republican Senate. Hell, he probably prefers having a Republican governor. Being the only Democrat in Albany’s iron-triangle makes you the “go-to guy”. When Ralph Marino was similarly situated as the only Republican, he loved it so much he tried to openly sabotage his candidate for Governor (payback was forthcoming, and we got Joe Bruno). Since a Democratic Governor seems a near certainty next year, Silver has acknowledged this reality, but still prefers to be controlling Democratic legislative power all by himself. Anyone who wants to see how Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno really regard their Minority counterparts in the other house should remember the public dressing down that Bruno gave Assembly Republican leader Jim Tedisco for actually having the nerve to speak during a public budget negotiation; Bruno even contrasted Tedisco’s impertinent behavior to the well behaved silence displayed by Shelly’s pet rock, David Paterson; Paterson actually smiled, thinking this was a compliment.

But what Silver is really afraid of is not only a loss of power, but the acquisition of accountability. With a one party government in Albany, everyone will know exactly who to blame. In divided government, pesky interest groups can be placated with “one-house bills”, a shrug of the shoulders, and promises of better days to come. One party government means a time where the chickens will come home to roost, and payback will be a bitch. Suddenly, a lot of folks are going to expect all those poorly drafted, poorly conceived, “one-house bills” to be enacted into law. For the most part, this won’t happen, because it can’t happen; but a lot of people rue the day when they are called to account for this.

If one wants a preview of how accountability changes things, the enactment of the State’s death penalty is an interesting example. For years, the Senate would pass a draconian death penalty bill. The Assembly, knowing Governor Carey or Cuomo would veto it, would pass the same exact bill, knowing the veto could not be overridden in their house. Once George Pataki was elected, Assembly Democrats realized they couldn’t pass the Republican bill anymore without actually reading it, because it would actually become law. Protracted negotiations took place, which in typical Albany fashion produced the first “one house bill” one could actually sign into law, a death penalty which actually made it impossible to execute anyone (not that I’m complaining). I suppose things didn’t change that much, but what this example shows is that accountability has the salutary effect of actually getting people to pay attention. In Albany, that would be a revolution.

Mario Cuomo and his gang used to have a wonderful road-show. The Governor and his minions used to give a set speech outlining the Governor’s utopian vision of a shining city on a hill. No matter what the problem, the Governor had a program. Yes, none of those programs had ever been implemented, but that was the fault of those evil Senate Republicans. And, in fact, when given the opportunity to help elect Senate Democrats, Mario Cuomo cannot be accused of sitting on his ample campaign chest and doing nothing; to the contrary, he was notorious for finding opportunities for going into the districts of vulnerable Senate Republican and finding reason to praise them in front of cameras and the working press.

The Albany Democrats have long been complicit in the facilitating the flaws of the most dysfunctional state government in America. They deserve to be punished. Electing a Democratic State Senate would surely be their worst nightmare come true. I know it may seem cruel, but they’ve earned it.