The state's Democratic leadership triumvirate has decided it's in the best interests of New Yorkers to shut them out of the budget process until the leaders have decided how to spend nearly $120 billion, levy billions of dollars in new taxes and close a $14 billion budget gap.
Gov. David A. Paterson, Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver are taking a pass on reform and resorting to the same old behind-the-scenes negotiations that have characterized New York's dysfunctional government for years.
Except that the secrecy bypassing conference committees may violate a 2007 budget reform law as well. Speaker Silver, D-Manhattan, and Majority Leader Smith, D-Queens, have scrapped for now their plans for each chamber to pass separate budget bills leading to conference committees to reconcile differences. The committees could come later, but Gov. Paterson, Assemblyman Silver and Sen. Smith first hope to work out their differences privately behind closed doors and avoid one-house budget resolutions.
The triumvirate would have New Yorkers believe that all that secrecy is good government. Since they are all Democrats, the three men say fewer disagreements among them should make it easier to pass a budget by the April 1 start of the fiscal year.
"I think the important thing for us in this time of crisis is to give certainty to New Yorkers," said Speaker Silver. "So at this point, we and the governor have agreed that we want to look at the end result and avoid the bickering that takes place with one-house budgets."
New Yorkers have apparently been spared some "bickering" over tax hikes. The three men emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday to announce they agreed to eliminate $1.3 billion of the $4.1 billion in new taxes Gov. Paterson had proposed on goods and services. Instead, the revenue will be replaced with some of the $11 billion in federal stimulus funding meant to meet Medicaid costs.
Whether that is a sound policy and an appropriate use of stimulus funds will be left for later debate, if it takes place at all.
The main difference from previous years is that there is no GOP voice in the room since Majority Leader Smith occupies the post that had given Republicans a seat at the negotiating table.
Mr. Smith's predecessor as majority leader, Sen. Dean Skelos of Nassau County, called editorial writers Thursday to lash out at Democrats for the lack of openness and transparency. He said that excluding Republicans from the secret meetings leaves unrepresented "almost half of the state" which the 32 GOP senators represent in the 62-member chamber.
The timing of the meetings is not lost on government watchdogs pointing out the sessions come in advance of Sunshine Week, when the media promote the openness, transparency and accountability lacking in the budget deliberations.