ALBANY — A Queens lawmaker wants to level the playing field and relieve Gov. Cuomo of his command over the state budget.
Assemblyman Brian Barnwell (D-Woodside), frustrated by the opaque fashion in which the Empire State’s fiscal bills are crafted, is introducing legislation he says will loosen Gov. Cuomo’s vice-like grip on the annual agita-inducing budget process.
“This bill attempts to make the executive and the Legislature co-equal branches,” Barnwell told the Daily News on Wednesday.
The New York Constitution places the majority of power over the state’s purse-strings with the executive branch — and critics contend that court decisions have consolidated that command by allowing the governor to pack policy items into appropriation bills.
Under the current system, the governor introduces a budget proposal, and the Legislature can only “strike out or reduce items.” If they add anything to the bills, the items must be “stated separately and distinctly from the original items of the bill and refer each to a single object or purpose.” The governor has the power to veto any added item.
The bill calls for a constitutional amendment that would make the process of passing spending bills more like any other piece of legislation and give the Assembly and Senate the ability to “alter any and all appropriation bills submitted by the governor.” It would also strip the governor of his line-item veto power.
The governor’s power was cemented by a 2004 Court of Appeals decision in a lawsuit between then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Gov. George Pataki.
Blair Horner, executive director of good-government group NYPIRG, applauded the lawmaker’s attempt at balancing the budget power.
“New York’s governor has extraordinary powers in the budget process, which relegates the Legislature to junior partner status,” Horner told The News. “New Yorkers deserve a robust debate over whether those powers are appropriate.”
The last time such an attempt to weaken the governor’s executive budget power was made voters rejected it by a nearly 2-1 margin, something an aide to the governor gleefully pointed out.
“We’re proud of the nine timely, fiscally responsible budgets achieved under this system and — while we know no one has any institutional memory around here — the last time someone tried to change this process New Yorkers rejected it by an embarrassingly wide margin,” senior Cuomo adviser Rich Azzopardi said.
Democrats, who control both chambers for the first time in nearly a decade, grumbled this week after a policy-packed “big ugly” budget bill was hammered out between Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) and voted on in the dead of night.
The secretive, closed-door process left many disillusioned, their hopes dashed that one-party control would result in more transparency and fewer unrelated items added to the fiscal plan. The last-minute inclusion of a committee to establish a statewide campaign finance system in lieu of allowing lawmakers to figure it out rubbed many the wrong way.
“There shouldn’t be policy in the budget, plain and simple,” Barnwell said. “And the people should have a say as to whether or not this should change, hence the constitutional amendment proposal.”
State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens) told NY1 he is looking at a similar measure in the upper chamber.
E.J. McMahon, the research director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, said the current law works to rein in spending and chided elected officials for posturing after voting for the omnibus bill they are deriding. Both Barnwell and Gianaris voted for the so-called “big ugly” bill.