Both ends of political spectrum uneasy with state budget process
The often-lengthy state budget hearings began Monday at the Capitol as legislators heard testimony on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spending plan and how to close a $6 billion gap. The process, however, was assailed by both the left and the right.
The hearings began with the environmental conservation portion of the budget. But four minutes into state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos’ opening statement, the hearing room erupted into chants as protesters advocating for anti-climate change legislation surrounded Seggos and the lawmakers.
“Cuomo, tax the rich for a Green New Deal,” the protesters chanted.
After a couple of minutes, Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, a Democrat, told protesters they would have to be quiet.
“You can go back to your seats and listen,” Krueger said as the demonstrators ignored her.
Protesters were finally gently escorted out by State Police.
Seggos told lawmakers that while he may disagree with some of the protesters’ tactics, they aren’t wrong.
“It’s been the 10 hottest years on record, there are fires burning in Australia, there’s droughts all across the world, there’s floods impacting communities.” Seggos told lawmakers. “They’re right, and we all should take that to heart, and I know the governor is.”
Meanwhile, at a suburban hotel a few minutes outside of Albany, the state’s Conservative Party held its annual meeting. Several Republican lawmakers, who are in the minority in both the Senate and the Assembly, called for reform of the budget process.
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay said the budget should be limited to financial items. He said too many unrelated major policy issues are lumped in with the budget and voted on, often in late evening hours, when each item should instead be considered on its own.
“The process is rigged to advance the governor’s agenda, undermine the role of the legislature, and distract from the hard financial choices that need to be made this year, particularly,” Barclay said.
Barclay said Cuomo has once again included several proposals into this budget that don’t belong there, such as banning single-use plastic foam containers, legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, and even amending the state’s seal and flag to include the words “E Pluribus Unum.”
And he said the policy items included in the budget are sometimes rushed through without proper vetting. He cited the bail reforms approved in 2019 as part of the budget that are now facing backlash from law enforcement groups and some Republican legislators. The changes end most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes, and have led to some repeat offenders going free until their trial begins. Some Democrats, including Cuomo, have said the law needs tweaking.
“Clearly, I don’t think a lot of our colleagues from the suburbs and other areas realized the impact this bail reform was going to have,” Barclay said. “And the public safety crisis we have as a result of that.”
Until last year, Republicans were in control of the state Senate for most of the past century and did not object to including unrelated policy items into the spending plan in recent years. Barclay said just because that happened in the past, it doesn’t make it right going forward.
Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s senior adviser, said the criticism is unfounded. He said the governor and his staff are “proud” of their budgets, and believe the public also likes what’s been done.
“Anyone who believes that we are circumventing the Legislature with a budget voted on by the Legislature has clearly flunked middle school social studies,” Azzopardi said.
Azzopardi said the Legislature has plenty of time to deliberate over all of the items in the budget and has the chance to present its own budget plans before the March 31 deadline. He said a good example is the legislative budget hearings, which often last well into the evenings, and continue through mid-February.