Lawmakers worry budget clause will mean power struggle

A one paragraph clause in Governor Cuomo’s budget has caused some concern among state lawmakers over the separation of powers between the governor and the legislature.

It’s one short paragraph in the hundreds of pages in Governor Cuomo’s budget plan, and it’s repeated in several different places. It says, essentially, that the governor’s budget office can move money around in state agencies to consolidate business services, like information technology and other functions, without the permission of the legislature.

It sounds innocent enough, but some state lawmakers are wary that it may be a power grab by the governor, because it would take some key decision making authority away from the legislature.

Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat, questioned Cuomo’s budget director about it at a recent hearing on the governor’s spending plan, saying she’s concerned it could be  “potentially stripping the entire purpose of the legislature in budget negotations”.

The governor’s budget director, Robert Megna, told the Senator that the provision may seem worse than it actually is.

“It sounds pretty complicated and it sounds pretty far reaching,” Megna admits.

But he says it’s simply meant to help consolidate portions of state government and save taxpayer money quickly. For instance, he says the governor would like the authority to consolidate the multiple call centers in agencies around the state to down to a few more centralized centers.

“We don’t believe that that the public is well served necessarily by having 27 different call centers” said Megna, who says right now, he can’t tell lawmakers whether “two or four or five” centers are best , and who should operate those centers.

Senator Krueger told Megna that she understands the need for government consolidation. The Senator is a member of the governor’s Spending and Government Efficiency panel, known as the SAGE commission. But she says the clause inserted into the budget has nothing to do with that.

Previous governors have also sought greater powers in the budget making process. In the 1990’s, then Governor George Pataki attempted to use the state budget to change policy, instead of following the long custom of just presenting the legislature with dollar amounts for each category of spending. The Assembly Speaker, Sheldon Silver, sued, and lost in court. Senator Krueger says Cuomo is taking the powers permitted in the court ruling even further.

“I have a great fear that this paragraph actually goes far far beyond even the court case,” said Krueger.

Afterward, Senator Krueger said she asked some attorneys she knew to interpret the language. She said she was told by one of them that the clause could theoretically be used to whittle away the legislature’s authority to nothing.

“Then next year, the state budget would only need one page,” Kruger said she was told, consisting of  “that paragraph” and a total dollar amount at the bottom.

Lawmakers would then just vote “yes or no” Krueger said.

Budget Director Megna, at the hearing, tried to diffuse tensions, saying Governor Cuomo has instructed him to work with legislative staff on the exact wording of the paragraph.

“The governor has asked me to sit down with legislative staff and to talk specifically about what we think this paragraph means and how it should be applied,” said Megna. “To get reaction from the legislature to see how we could move forward.”

Senator Krueger expressed relief, and says she’ll await that discussion.

PHOTO:  Karen DeWitt / NY Public Radio