Comptroller finds Cuomo's budget gives executive greater powers

PHOTO: Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio

State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli says that Governor Cuomo’s budget is mostly in balance, but he warns that some proposals would give the governor too much power at the expense of other branches of government.

The Comptroller is critical of budget proposals that would permit the Governor to move money around without the legislature’s prior approval in state agencies and authorities, and he says it “raises a cautionary flag”.  Comptroller DiNapoli says for instance, it’s conceivable that Thruway tolls meant for road and bridge maintenance could end up being used for other purposes.

“I don’t think in our effort to achieve greater budget and fiscal responsibility, we should sacrifice the kind of transparency and openness that I think you need as part of the process as well,” DiNapoli said.

DiNapoli says the governor’s budget also proposes eliminating what has been a key oversight function of the Comptroller’s office. State agencies would no longer need the pre-approval of the comptroller for issuing procurement contracts.

“I don’t know that that trade off really makes sense in the long run,” says DiNapoli who says the pre-audits sometimes point out ways for the state to “get a better deal” for the taxpayers.

DiNapoli won’t go as far as to say that the governor is making a power grab. The comptroller prefers to view it as an overly zealous focus on improving government efficiency, but he says it is misguided.

“Accountability is as important as efficiency,” the Comptroller said. “In many ways they work hand in hand.”

Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Megna, rebuts DiNapoli’s charges, saying the governor needs more “flexibility” in the budget to improve efficiencies for things like procurement, and the consolidation of information technology among state agencies.

In a statement, Megna says “we can no longer abide by the Albany status quo that allows for out of control spending and contracting that wastes taxpayer dollars”.

The Comptroller does have some words of praise for the governor’s budget plan. He says Cuomo is acting responsibly to close a multi- billion dollar budget gap with a minimum of one shots or gimmicks. The budget gap is reduced in part by a temporary tax on the rich, which was renewed last December. The Comptroller notes that tax runs out in two years and could create a new structural gap then.

DiNapoli says the biggest worry, though, continues to be the “sluggish” economy, and global threats like the European debt crisis.

“That certainly could be a vulnerability,” he said.

The Comptroller says it’s important that the governor and legislature continue to be conservative in their spending and their estimates of future tax collections when they put together the new state budget.