Op Ed Piece on Court of Appeals’ Decision

February 22, 2005

Governor Pataki has now completed his budget submission to the legislature. Before talking about the specifics of the budget, it’s important to explain the implications of a December 2004 Court of Appeals’ decision. The court has dramatically altered the checks and balances of our state government – giving the governor absolute control over the budget process.

In a 5-2 decision, the governor’s Court of Appeals’ appointees collectively issued a majority opinion under which the legislature will find it much harder for us to undo the wrong choices that this governor has made in cutting and under-funding programs and ignoring the basic needs of New Yorkers. Chief Judge Judith Kaye and Judge Ciparick issued a strong dissenting opinion, concluding that "the governor has overstepped the line that separates his budget-making responsibility from the Legislature’s lawmaking responsibility, setting an unacceptable model for the future."

Not only does the Court of Appeals’ ruling severely limit the legislature’s ability to change the governor’s budget proposal, this past week the governor released a contingency budget plan – a move that can only be described as confusing and counterproductive – that gives him total power to suspend, alter or modify any law, rule or regulation relating to state funding. This is an astonishing power grab that stands the constitution on its head.

Because of last December’s Court of Appeals’ decision, the governor already has more budgetary power than any executive in the country – including the president of the United States. This latest budget scheme gives him greater emergency power, and ultimately, greater power than the constitution allows.

According to the ruling, the legislature cannot amend or replace the governor’s language on a particular budget item. There are many cases where he changes current laws in his proposal this year, including the school aid formula, TANF spending, Family Health Plus and Medicaid spending.

Let me illustrate the problem with this court decision using two examples. TAP is New York’s highly successful Tuition Assistance Program, which gives grants to thousands of college students to help them afford college. Governor Pataki has changed the TAP formula in existing law, cutting each student’s award by 50 percent while they are going to college. If a student received $3,000 per year, he or she will get $1,500 per year. They would receive the remainder after graduation. This TAP cut would make it impossible for many even to think of going to college and will hurt the poorest students the most.

Under the Court of Appeals’ decision, the legislature cannot change the language in the governor’s proposal, allowing students to receive their full TAP award each year. We fought against the governor’s language change when he tried to cut TAP in previous years and won. Now the court has ruled that we can "strike" the governor’s new language which cuts TAP, but we would have to also delete the appropriation as well, thereby destroying this critically-important program.

While the governor says he has increased education funding through changed budget language, schools in my Assembly district would lose $1.7 million in state aid. Ithaca would suffer a loss of $883,717; Lansing $63,223; Newfield $92,221; Trumansburg $123,201; Cortland $320,381; McGraw $8,470; Dryden $73,382; and Groton $159,557 in reimbursable aids.

The Court of Appeals’ ruling takes away the legislature’s prerogative to amend the governor’s language and restore the school funding. Because the court has now ruled that we can’t amend the governor’s changes to current law in these two instances, and many more, we are left either rubber-stamping these bad proposals or delaying, in the hopes that the governor will sit down and negotiate changes that are acceptable to us and the citizens we represent.

Last week, in the Assembly, I voted for legislation to amend the state constitution, making clear that the legislature does have an important role to play in fashioning state law, including within the budget process. To think otherwise is to believe that this governor or any future governor should be a dictator who can make laws on his or her own.

I will continue to fight the governor’s destructive budget proposals and attempts to control the budget process. After all, a balance of power is an essential element of any democracy. I urge everyone to write or call their state Assemblymember and Senator – along with the governor – to let your views be heard on this critical issue.