2011-04-07 / This Week's Attitude

Budget’s Complete, But NY Legislators’ Work Is Far From Done

This Week’’ s Attiitude
By Neil S. Friedman

You’d think New York’s state legislators accomplished some sort of miracle last Thursday when they passed a timely state budget. No sooner did the financial plan for the coming fiscal year get final approval than nearly every elected Tom, Dick and Harriet in Albany issued press releases and statements boasting of their accomplishment.

One upstate newspaper compared the self-congratulatory announcements to a football team celebrating for merely getting on the field in time for the kickoff. Naturally, the on-time budget was good news, but for politicians to pat themselves on the back for working within the law and doing what hadn’t been done in five years —and only a few times since 1983 — is preposterous. Nonetheless, it says a whole lot about a legislative body that should still be embarrassed for being labeled the nation’s “most dysfunctional state legislature” just a short time ago.

When Governor Andrew Cuomo made his inaugural speech a few months ago, he reiterated a lot of the same promises that his predecessors uttered about straightening out the mess in Albany. But actions speak louder than words and the state’s budget, with acceptable though harsh cuts at a time of economic difficulties, delivered the first step towards financial stability. But to watch the television ad that began airing within 48 hours of the budget’s approval, as it lauds the early passage and commends the new governor’s budget cutting, is regrettable.

I’d prefer, instead, to see Cuomo in a TV spot offering a civil “way to go” to state senators and assembly members, then urging them to undertake — before the end of the current legislative session in a few months — the formidable task of implementing comprehensive ethics reform, especially in the wake of the multitude of corruption and convictions that Albany has produced in the last several years.

Last year, legislative leaders said they wanted to pass legislation to clean up Albany’s ethics before they took their summer break, but it was an empty thought. This year, if they’re still intent on cleaning up their own houses — and prove to voters they’re earnest in that effort — lawmakers should remain in session until meaningful reform sets a course to reverse the pattern of corruption that has sadly become too prevalent.

Despite the politicians’ self-interests, the new budget is commendable for closing a large budget gap, without increasing taxes, and some belt-tightening measures at a time when austerity is necessary to resolve the state’s fiscal imbalances, and regardless of some of the hardships it inflicts on those who need it the most.

Sometimes it’s easy to target programs for seniors, the poor and the youngest with reductions because their advocates usually don’t have sufficient financial support to fight for them like corporations and the rich, who contribute heavily to political campaigns.

City schools took a severe blow and lost over $800 million in state education funds at a time when the U.S. lags behind every single major industrial country in education levels of math, science, history and world cultures which only serves to weaken us. The ultimate consequences of that cut remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, the burden could have been eased if the governor and GOP senators abolished the tax break for millionaires, even though it would have broken Cuomo’s guarantee not to impose any new ones.

Now that our state politicians achieved what they’re lawfully supposed to, Albany legislators have to endorse a firm set of rules that would eliminate any leeway for conflicts of interest with state businesses and their outside incomes.

If they fail to responsibly govern themselves or can’t strike a deal acceptable to Cuomo, then the new governor will have to unilaterally take the matter into his own hands and create ethics reform that is waaaaaay behind schedule.

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