After the dust settled on a week-late New York State budget agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo took a PR victory lap touting accomplishments on raising the age of criminality (sorta), establishing free SUNY for low-income students (with lots of strings attached), and a reinstatement of the 421-a tax break (which will continue to subsidize luxury development in New York City for years to come).
Grabbing far fewer headlines was the governor’s continued and unprecedented consolidation of executive power — Cuomo’s ability to sidestep tremendous amounts of accountability by lumping every important legislative priority into a single marathon budget negotiation, where he gets to preside and pressure legislators into agreeing to his demands.
“What the governor has managed to do by this process, over a number of years, is to move the discretionary funding in the state budget out of the hands of the legislature and into his own control, eliminating oversight over that process,” said Susan Lerner, the executive director of Common Cause New York, an organization that pushes for more transparency in state government. “All New Yorkers should be concerned about that.”
Cuomo’s two major personal triumphs in this year’s budget negotiation were the creation of an “office of the inspector general of New York for transportation,” which will report directly to Cuomo, as well as the ability to reopen the budget and modify it based on possible cuts coming in the federal budget. Both powers replace the jurisdiction of elected representatives with . . . Governor Cuomo.
The governor has been clamoring for more direct oversight over New York transportation projects for months, offering this inspector general position as part of his ethics reform proposal last November. While the rest of his ethics package completely disappeared during budget negotiations, the inspector general position somehow skated through. As the Voice pointed out at the time, this new role is already filled by an elected representative, the state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli. But DiNapoli, whose literal job it is to oversee spending on government projects, has found himself often on the wrong side of Cuomo, after he audited Cuomo’s beloved economic development programs and found that they weren’t very effective at all. For the past several years, Cuomo has been funneling more and more money into these initiatives, which allow him to decide where funding winds up with very little oversight or input from voters. These are the same projects that got him in hot water with former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
“It has been fascinating to watch the impact on the budget. It has been a ballooning and rather exponential growth of economic development funds, which, of course, are under the sole control of the governor,” said Lerner.
With the new inspector general position, Cuomo can start directing money to favored projects while also running the oversight of that spending as well, creating a closed circuit of accountability. He can also exert even more power over the Port Authority, which is vital to his plans to rebuild both JFK and LaGuardia airports. Cuomo could then have sole oversight of projects like the much derided and hilariously inefficient AirTrain that would run to LaGuardia from Willets Point.
The other new power that the governor won for himself is perhaps even more significant. If the federal government were to cut funds to New York state by at least $850 million, his office would be able to unilaterally create a plan that would slash the state’s budget, and the state legislature would have to come up with an alternative plan within ninety days. Given the state legislature’s complete dysfunction, an alternative plan that would be agreed upon by a Democratic house and Republican senate appears unlikely, especially with Cuomo pushing his own plan.
“We do not have a healthy legislative process, and therefore everything gets stuffed into the budget,” Lerner said. “It’s negotiated in secret and without public input. This is not the way in which government should be conducted.”
When legislators do, in fact, agree on legislation, like last year’s indigent legal services bill that would have made the state responsible for funding indigent defense instead of individual counties, Cuomo has either shoved them into the budget or, in that case, vetoed them outright. According to this year’s budget, indigent legal services will only be reimbursed by the state if the counties are using the money to bring themselves to the minimum of what the constitution requires.
Following this year’s bruising budget process, it appears that according to Cuomo, when it comes to both spending and oversight, he alone can fix it. Or at least hide it from view.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Division of the Budget would be making decisions involving indigent defense that went well beyond its normal role, as was originally proposed by the governor. That power was left out of the final budget.