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Both Ends Of New York's Political Spectrum Uneasy With State Budget Process

Hans Pennink
An exterior view of the New York State Capitol last week in Albany.

The often lengthy state budget hearings began Monday at the Capitol, as legislators heard testimony on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s spending plan and how to close a $6 billion gap. The process, however, was assailed by both the left and the right.     

The hearings began with the environmental conservation portion of the state budget. But four minutes into state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos’ opening statement, the hearing room erupted into chants as protesters advocating for anti-climate change legislation surrounded Seggos and the lawmakers.

“Cuomo, tax the rich for a Green New Deal,” the protesters chanted.

After a couple of minutes, Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger, a Democrat, told protesters they would have to be quiet.  

“You can go back to your seats and listen,” Krueger said, as the demonstrators ignored her.

Protesters were finally gently escorted out by state police.

Commissioner Seggos told lawmakers that while he may disagree with some of the protesters’ tactics, they aren’t wrong.

“It’s been the ten hottest years on record, there are fires burning in Australia, there’s droughts all across the world, there’s floods impacting communities,” Seggos told lawmakers. “They’re right, and we all should take that to heart, and I know the governor is.”

Meanwhile, at a suburban hotel a few minutes outside of Albany, the state’s Conservative Party held its annual meeting. Several Republican lawmakers, who are in the minority in both the Senate and the Assembly, called for reform of the budget process. Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay says the budget should be limited to financial items. He says too many unrelated major policy issues are lumped in with the budget and voted on, often in late evening hours, when each item should instead be considered on its own.

“The process is rigged to advance the governor’s agenda, undermine the role of the legislature and distract from the hard financial choices that need to be made this year particularly,” Barclay said.  

The state faces a $6 billion budget deficit.

Barclay says Governor Cuomo has once again included several proposals into this budget that don’t belong there, such as banning single-use plastic foam containers, legalizing adult recreational use of marijuana, and even amending the state’s seal and flag to include the words E Pluribus Unum.

And he says the policy items included in the budget are sometimes rushed through without proper vetting. He cited the bail reforms approved in 2019 as part of the budget that are now facing backlash from law enforcement groups and some Republican legislators. The changes end most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes, and have led to some repeat offenders going free until their trial begins. Some Democrats, including Cuomo, have said the law needs tweaking.  

“Clearly, I don’t think a lot of our colleagues from the suburbs and other areas realized the impact this bail reform was going to have,” Barclay said. “And the public safety crisis we have as a result of that.”

Until last year Republicans were in control of the State Senate for most of the past century, and did not object to including unrelated policy items into the spending plan in recent years. Barclay says just because that happened in the past, doesn’t make it right going forward.

Cuomo’s senior advisor, Rich Azzopardi, says the criticism is unfounded. He says the governor and his staff are “proud” of their budgets, and believe the public also likes what’s been done.

“Anyone who believes that we are circumventing the legislature with a budget voted on by the legislature has clearly flunked middle school social studies,” Azzopardi said.

Azzopardi says the legislature has plenty of time to deliberate over all of the items in the budget and the chance to present their own budget plans before the March 31 deadline. He says a good example is the legislative budget hearings, which often last well into the evenings, and continue through mid-February.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.