It’s Alive

| NY Torch

With little advance notice or fanfare, a constitutional amendment (S.1) that would give the Legislature much more power to shape the state budget was reported out of the Senate Finance Committee today. The Assembly version (A.2) was approved back in February, so the measure is now a big step closer to a statewide voter referendum.

When it was first passed last year, proponents said the amendment would put an end to late state budgets by rewriting the state’s basic law to provide for an automatic “contingency” plan when a fiscal year starts without a new budget in place. But on closer inspection, the purported budget “reform” looks like more of a self-interested deform of a law that wasn’t broken to begin with. As explained in this FiscalWatch Memo:

“If enacted, the constitutional and statutory changes sought by the Senate and Assembly would mark a fundamental shift of power in the state Capitol. For the first time since the late 1920s, New York’s Legislature would ultimately have the upper hand in budget disputes with the governor. The result would be less fiscal discipline, higher spending and higher taxes — all without improving the efficiency, transparency or accountability of the state’s much-criticized budget process.”

Last year’s Court of Appeals decision in Silver v. Pataki strongly reaffirmed the Governor’s power, under Article 7 of the state Constitution, to shape appropriations language in a way that cannot be altered by the Legislature. This greatly annoyed legislative leaders, some of whom predicted (inaccurately, as it turned out) that the ruling would make it more difficult for them to pass a budget on time this year.

Since the Legislature just finished passing its first on-time budget in 20 years — proving it could, in fact, get the job done under the existing constitutional framework, despite (or, more likely, because of) the Silver v. Pataki decision — the Senate’s timing may seem strange. But consider this: if approved by the voters, the amendment would give either house of the Legislature the ability to unilaterally veto a governor’s budget merely by doing nothing until the clock ticks past midnight at the end of a fiscal year. That has to be an especially attractive option to a Republican-controlled body looking forward to the possible replacement of a Republican governor with a Democrat (such as Eliot Spitzer) in 2007.

The Finance Committee’s 31-2 vote in favor of the constitutional changes (with Senators Thomas Duane and Ada Smith, both Democrats, casting the only “nays”) advances the resolution to the Senate “first report” calendar. Under normal Senate procedures, it would be ready for floor action in two calendar days — which, for all practical purposes, means early May, after next week’s Passover recess.