October 17, 2005
Diverse group of fiscal experts and organizations agree: Voters should reject proposed constitutional amendment
An unusually diverse group of individuals and organizations outlined reasons voters should reject a proposed constitutional amendment on this November's ballot.
“I don’t see how you’d call this reform. I don’t see how this can conceivably be called good government," said Frank Mauro, director of the Fiscal Policy Institute and widely recognized advocate for generally liberal fiscal policy. "It’s like you stick a feather in your cap and call it macaroni doesn’t make it macaroni.”
Speakers at the October 17 press conference included fiscal-policy experts on the left and right, think tanks, an academic authority on New York State government, and The Business Council.
Most of the participants in the event are members of Stop the Amendment, a coalition united in opposition to Proposal One.
The speakers included: Gerald Benjamin, dean of liberal arts and sciences at the State University of New York at New Paltz; Jo Brill, director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission; Frank Mauro, head of the Fiscal Policy Institute (Mauro is not a member of Stop the Amendment); E.J. McMahon, Jr. director of the Manhattan Institute’s Empire Center for New York State Policy; and Ed Reinfurt, vice president of The Business Council of New York State.
"The legislature's proposal to change New York's Constitutional Budget process is a classic example of the bait and switch," said Dean Benjamin. "The bait is the promise of real reform in Albany. The switch is the undoing of the greatest governmental reform achieved in New York State in the 20th Century, the executive budget system, and its replacement with a long discredited 19th century legislative budget system."
This proposal is about power, Benjamin said. "The governor has it; the legislature wants it."
There are good ideas out there for budget reform, Benjamin said. This proposal does not capture them.
"Voting down this [proposal] will not only kill a bad idea, but may encourage the legislature to take a more balanced approach and perhaps give us a chance to vote yes on real budget process reform when the next chance comes," Benjamin said.
This amendment is being billed as budget reform, said Brill. “This is not,” Brill said. “We run the risk of making the budget process worse.”
Brill said the amendment would make on-time budgets even less likely. “Why would the legislature pass a budget on time if they have more power over it when it is late?”
“The Citizens Budget Commission urges voters to reject this proposal,” Brill said. By doing so, they would send a message to state lawmakers to get moving on real reform that would balance the budget, provide debt limits and require more adequate reserve funds.
Frank Mauro, who referred to the amendment as S1, its Senate bill number, said the amendment attempts to address the balance of power in the budget process.
“S1 gets at the ‘balance of powers’ question in a very convoluted and inadequately defined way that would make the state budget process even messier and more complicated than it currently is,” he said.
As an example, Mauro pointed to the contingency budget that would be put in place under the amendment if legislators failed to pass the executive budget by the May 1 deadline.
“Neither S1, nor the accompanying implementing legislation, assign responsibility to anyone for preparing the contingency budget, let alone in a timely fashion,” Mauro said. “Moreover, S1 has internally inconsistent language regarding the contingency budget—referring to it in one sentence as being based on the prior year’s appropriations and in another sentence as being based on the prior year’s disbursements—the cash that actually goes out the door. Those are very different.”
“S1. . .should not be made a permanent part of the state Constitution,” Mauro said.
This amendment is “monumental con job,” said McMahon. “Like all con jobs, it preys on the victim’s fondest hopes and desires.”
In this case, the victim is the public that desires real budget reform, McMahon said. The amendment will lead not to budget reform, but "chaos and chronically late budgets.”
“There are so many questionable aspects to this amendment,” McMahon said. “The only added certainty if this passes will be uninterrupted paychecks for legislators,” he said, in reference to the fact that the law which stops legislators from receiving their paychecks if the budget is late would be discarded if the amendment is passed.
”There is a whole slew of ambiguity and uncertainly surrounding this.” McMahon said. It is “poorly constructed and poorly drafted.”
By voting no on this, voters clear the way for better reform, McMahon said.
"This is about leadership,” Reinfurt said. The amendment would diminish the next governor's ability to lead, no matter what party he is in.
"To suggest one of the tools that gives a governor the chance to lead should be significantly watered down is the wrong step at the wrong time for New York," Reinfurt said.
In response to a question about technical aspects of the contingency budget, both McMahon and Mauro said technical aspects were impossible to discuss because the answers weren’t clear.
“It’s not at all clear,” McMahon said. He said the ambiguity in the amendment and the implementing language made it impossible to dissect.
“It’s a mess,” Mauro agreed.
“This ambiguity is an invitation to litigation,” Benjamin said. He added that while the governor is promised the power of line-item vetoes in the amendment, that power may not be adequate to erase legislators’ attempts at new spending. “We don’t know what the reach of the item veto will be in the new process,” he said.
“It’s so poorly drafted you’re left to guess how people will behave,” McMahon said. The unintended consequences will all be negative, he said. “This arose from a typical Albany process,” he added. “It was adopted by acclamation with virtually no debate.”
Benjamin said it is difficult to predict if voters will reject the amendment. The electorate will be small because this is an off-year election, he said. "But it’s more likely to be an attentive and informed electorate.”
“When money is involved, people tend to vote no,” Benjamin said. “Complexity also tends to attract a no vote.”
Benjamin also pointed to division among “good government” groups that had been calling for reform. He said the division was telling.
New Yorkers have been demanding change in their government, said Brill. Because of their demands, lawmakers passed an on-time budget this year and put this amendment on the ballot as a reform measure.
"But this isn't reform," Brill said. It isn’t good government because it lacks many aspects of good budget reform such as a binding revenue forecast and debt limits.
“So many things aren’t in this that it can’t be called good government,” Brill said.
McMahon added that while some groups say this reform will require more transparency surrounding the budget process the amendment only calls for increased transparency on the governor’s end but “the problem is no transparency is required for the legislature at all.”
Brill said that there are elements that are positive in this package, such as an independent budget office and putting HCRA spending on budget.
But she added, those changes do not need a constitutional amendment
to be made.