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Critics assail secretive state budget process

The new state budget has been in place for nearly a week, but little attention has been paid to many of the items that are in it. A government reform group says that’s by design.

As soon as the state spending plan was passed, Governor Cuomo made the most of two items that have received the greatest public attention, a graduated increase in the state’s minimum wage, and a future paid family leave program, to take full effect in several years.

The budget passed on a Friday night. By Monday morning Cuomo was at a political rally touting his successes.

“We’ll make life better for over 2 million New Yorkers when we raise the minimum age to $15 an hour,” Cuomo said to a cheering crowd.

Cuomo was joined by Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Technically, the minimum wage increase and paid family leave are policy decisions, and will be funded by employers, and do not have to be part of the budget at all.

The actual nuts and bolts of the state spending plan has received  much less scrutiny. Government watchdogs, including Citizen’s Union’s Dick Dadey, says the budget deliberations reached a new level of secrecy, even for Albany’s clandestine ways.

“We have a government in hiding,” said Dadey. “A government that operates in the shadows and makes big decisions on behalf of the public without any public scrutiny.”

Most of the decisions on the budget were made by Governor Cuomo and major party legislative leaders in closed door three men in a room leaders meetings. The private get-togethers have been widely criticized. This year, the media were not notified when the meetings were taking place until the final three days of the budget talks ,and many meetings were held outside of the Capitol at the governor’s mansion.

The final budget agreement came so late, that the governor had to use what’s called a special message of necessity to by pas the legal three day waiting period between when a bill is printed and when it can be voted on.

The last minute rush reached a new level of opacity when, on the evening of the final day of the fiscal year, lawmakers were asked to vote on measures that allocated money for certain parts of the budget, without having the actual bill language to detail what programs they were actually enacting.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, asked Senate Finance Committee Chair Cathy Young, a Republican from Olean, where were the details of the paid family leave proposal, and a new counter terrorism program, that were supposed to be spelled out in the allocation that was before the chamber.

“Those fine points are being put on the budget right now as we speak,” Senator Young answered.

Senator Krueger complained about the near total lack of details.

“I actually studied government budgets in school,” said Kruger. “this wasn’t really how it worked.”

Majority party members in both houses , including Democrats in the Assembly, were silent about the lack of information. Dadey says he doubts that any of the lawmakers had time to read the bills. He says the situation reminds him of the statement by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, during passage of the Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obama care, who said “we have to pass the bill so we can find out what is in it."

“And that essentially has happened here in New York State,” Dadey said.

It was reported after the spending plan had passed, in Politco New York, that the budget includes the creation of a new state agency. It would have near total control over all infrastructure contracts that are over $50 million. The provision was in the governor’s budget proposal, and he has argued that he needs more oversight of out- of -control giant building projects that often take years to complete. But Dadey says there was no public discussion about what is essentially a new level of bureaucracy to the state government.

“That is a huge decision,” said Dadey.

Dadey says the  secretive budget is a potential breeding ground for corruption, at a time when both former leaders of the legislature are  facing potentially long prison sentences later in April.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.