Fitzpatrick Calls for Budget Reform In 2004

Assembly Minority seek to repair the budgetary process
January 29, 2004
My Assembly Minority colleagues and I have unveiled our budget reform plan for the 2004 legislative session, which was detailed earlier this month in our legislative action plan, "Roadmap to Renewal."

Legislative action in Albany is heading in the direction of budget reform. The Senate recently passed its Budget Reform Act of 2004 and Gov. George E. Pataki outlined his plan for budget reform in his State of the State address and his 2004 budget address.

There are now three proposed plans for budget reform. Is this the year the Legislature reverses its trend -- 19 years of late budgets -- and enacts legislation to repair a process that is clearly not working? Repeatedly late budgets have hindered state finances and created a loss of public trust and confidence in government. We can do better.

Key provisions of the Assembly Minority conference budget reform plan include:
  • Establishing a binding revenue forecast, which allows intervention by the state comptroller if the Legislature cannot achieve revenue consensus.
  • Permanently establishing budget conference committees that require open public debate of revenue and spending issues.
  • Creating a default budget if a budget agreement is not in place within 72 hours of the April 1 deadline. The previous yearís budget would automatically go into effect.
  • Prohibiting action on non-budget related bills. All action on bills not directly related to the budget would be prohibited if the budget were not adopted on time.
  • Prohibiting the use of "lump sum" disbursements. Increasingly, the Legislature has used "lump sums" to pay out sizeable amounts of tax dollars without public disclosure of the recipients. Open disclosure would help restore confidence and build support for worthwhile programs.

When you compare the Assembly Minority budget reform plan to the recently passed Senate Budget Reform Act of 2004, you find many similarities. The Assembly Minority Conference and Senate agree on establishing a binding revenue forecast, permanently establishing budget conference committees, and creating a default budget.

The two plans differ in the areas of legislative action and budgetary procedure. The Assembly Minority plan calls for prohibiting action on bills not directly related to the budget and the use of "lump sum" disbursements. The Senate reform plan seeks to change the budgetary process by rolling back start dates for the budget request process, starting budget discussion in November, and requiring the governor to submit his budget earlier. The Senate plan also wants to move the start of the fiscal year from April 1 to May 1.

The governorís budget reform plan includes accelerating both the executive budget submission date and the revenue consensus process, mandating legislative conference committees on the budget, and requiring full disclosure of the current and out-year impact of proposed legislative changes to the executive budget prior to being voted on by legislators.

Other similarities exist. The governor and the Senate are in agreement to accelerate the budget submission dates and revenue consensus process. All three proposals are in agreement on creating legislative conference committees on the budget. The governor and the Assembly are in agreement that there should be full disclosure of current budget appropriations. The governorís proposal of impact assessment of proposed legislative changes to the budget, however, is not a feature included in either the Assembly or Senate proposal.

Enacting budgetary reform legislation will include compromise. The compromise between the Assembly Minority, Senate and the governorís budget reform plans could restore public trust and confidence in government. Most, if not all, of the different provisions have common-sense merit for inclusion in any final reform of the budget process.

Among the merits are placing the highest priority on budget legislation and prohibiting legislative action on bills not related to the budget. By doing so, legislators would send a clear message to the public that enacting a budget should be timely and efficient. Full disclosure of budget appropriations could restore public trust and confidence in government and the programs that receive funding. Starting the budget process earlier and adjusting the start of the fiscal year could allow for better analysis of projected costs and more time for public assessment of new fiscal budgets. Finally, making any changes to the executive budget without assessing the financial impact and disclosing those changes to the public prior to a legislative vote circumvents the democratic process.

So now, as the 2004 legislative session begins, we have real opportunities to refine the budgetary process. The governor and both houses of the Legislature have put viable options on the tableóand share the opinion that change must happen if the Empire State is to provide its residents with good government and all the services and programs we need. It remains for all players to demonstrate their good will, and to participate openly and honestly in the process of change. The first steps have been taken. Letís work to ensure the journey truly really heads in the right direction.