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Supporters say an independent budget office in Albany could curb political arguments

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his Democratic colleagues in the legislature are at odds over agreement on the amount of revenues New York has to spend on health care, education and other items in the state budget, which is due in less than a month.

The State Comptroller may have to step in and decide if there’s no agreement by the end of the day Tuesday.  Supporters of a proposal for an independent budget office say its creation could avoid stalemates like this one in the future.

The sponsor of the bill to create an independent legislative  budget office for New York, Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan, says her bill is modeled on the Congressional Budget Office in Washington and New York City’s Independent Budget Office. Krueger, who is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, says a non-partisan unit that analyzes state budgets and budget proposals could take much of the political element out of budget making and maybe some of the arguing.

“I’m in politics I get it,” said Krueger who said there’s tendency when pushing all sorts of proposal to “down play the negatives and play up the positives.”

An independent budget office would also change the power dynamic in Albany, where governors have large staffs of fiscal analysts. The Senate and Assembly majority and minority parties employ fiscal experts, through their financial committees, but their numbers are far smaller than those in  the governor’s budget office.

Krueger says that puts legislators who want to challenge any budget assertions by a governor at a disadvantage.

“Sometimes I want to disagree with the governor’s people on what they are costing something out on, but I don’t have the ability necessarily to evaluate that without being accused of, ‘Oh, you’re having a fight with the governor today’,” said Krueger, who said an independent budget office could change that.

“You would have facts that you could work from,” she said.

The director of the budget office would be chosen jointly by the Senate Leader and Assembly Speaker, with input form the minority parties. All lawmakers, regardless of party, would have full access to all of the data generated by the office.

Krueger says the public craves more transparency in everything that government does and a non-partisan budget office could help with that.

The bill is gaining momentum in the Senate, where several newer Democratic members, including Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, shepherded the bill through the ethics committee, which she chairs.  

It is sponsored in the Assembly by Assistant Speaker Felix Ortiz, but is not backed so far by Ways and Means Committee Chair Helene Weinstein, who is Krueger’s counterpart in that house.

Krueger says without an independent budget arbiter, the financial forecasters are at  times “making it up as they go along.”

Meanwhile, there’s already a snag in the budget talks between the governor, a Democrat, and the Democratic-led state legislature, after they missed a deadline to agree on how much money the state has to spend in the new fiscal year. If there’s no breakthrough by the end of business on Tuesday, the State Comptroller will make the call.

The leader of the Senate Democrats, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, says she and the Assembly Speaker were only $500 million apart in their estimates on revenue for an over $175 billion spending plan, but the governor’s team abruptly ended the talks without reaching an agreement. Stewart-Cousins spoke on WCNY’s the Capitol Pressroom.

“We were surprised,” said Stewart-Cousins. “No governor had ever done that before.”

A senior advisor to Cuomo, Rich Azzopardi, denies the governor’s staff “walked away from the table.” He says the deadline to decide simply passed without an agreement.

Cuomo, speaking on WAMC, warned that the budget might not be on time this year if the legislature wants to spend more than the governor, at a time when tax collections have dropped.

“On time would be nice, but being right is essential,” Cuomo said. “I’m not going to do a budget that I know is not going to stand up to the test of time.”

Cuomo says he has confidence that the State Comptroller will come up with a “realistic” number if there’s no agreement on the revenue by Tuesday’s deadline.

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.