Albany should focus on budget at budget time

Budgets are statements of values. How you spend money is often a more accurate depiction of your priorities than the words you say. Therefore, New York state’s government leaders should commit their attention right now to a spending plan for the 2019-20 fiscal year that is estimated to cost the taxpayers about $175 million.

However, at budget time, much of our legislators’ attention goes not to the actual budget but to bills and other major policy changes squeezed in as part of the budget package: things like banning plastic bags, legalizing marijuana, having taxpayers finance political campaigns and — appallingly — restricting the Freedom of Information Law to make police keep arrests secret. That last one is straight-up un-American.

It’s normal in New York to cram these laws into the budget because it’s usually easier to pass a big policy change that way then as stand-alone legislation. With the urgency of the April 1 budget deadline and the need to strike deals between the Assembly, Senate and governor, these laws make great bargaining chips.

They also serve as handy distractions, introduced by state leaders who want their version of the budget to glide through without lawmakers having time to scrutinize it too much.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Now that the Democratic Party holds a majority in the Senate as well as the Assembly, the two houses have been working together more closely, often at odds with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie recently said he would prefer to have the budget process focus on the budget itself and deal with other things later, as stand-alone bills.

That would be wonderful. Then each bill would get a fair public hearing instead of being rammed through with budget bills at the last minute, along with a “message of necessity” from the governor to skip a bill’s normal three-day wait time. It runs against our countries founding principles for gigantic policy changes to be made with no public discussion.

That lack of due process frustrates people.

Contrast, for instance, upstate New Yorkers’ attitudes toward gay marriage and the SAFE Act gun restrictions. The former was openly debated on the floor and failed a couple of times before it finally passed in 2011, when pressure from the people swayed a majority of lawmakers. That’s how things are supposed to happen, and even those who disagree with it cannot question its legitimacy as the will of the people.

But the SAFE Act was rammed through less than a month after the December 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting. It got a message of necessity from the governor, not because it would have prevented someone from shooting up a school in the next few days — as if a mass murderer would follow the law anyway — but because Cuomo wanted to brag to Democrats nationwide about being the first to pass stricter gun-control laws after the tragedy. Up until that point, Cuomo enjoyed a lot of support from upstate Republicans, but the SAFE Act turned them against him like nothing else had — not only because they saw its content as pointless and unconstitutional, but because they saw the process as illegitimate. Drive anywhere in rural New York, and you’ll still see anti-SAFE Act signs. You don’t see such signs against gay marriage.

The Legislature had great success passing major laws at the beginning of this year, so it’s easy to see why they would be confident they can do so again, without relying on the budget process. We agree with Heastie that they should take any opportunity it can to deal with the budget by itself, handling other matters afterward. There is so much in the budget that needs attention. For instance:

• We have pushed for more hiring of forest rangers and foresters in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s budget, without the governor’s covert proposal to let the DEC read the Environmental Protection Fund at will to cover its operating expenses.

• We continue to push for the state to spend less money on economic development grants, especially in giveaways to rich companies that don’t need them, such as those in the movie and television industry, or tax breaks for Amazon to build in New York City.

• We continue to push for the state to quit shorting community colleges and pay its full one-third share, instead of making student tuition fill the gap.

• We continue to push the Legislature to abandon Cuomo’s plan to reduce state aid to villages and towns.

• New York’s high taxes are a deterrent to business owners and residents — and property taxes are the most unfair, in that they are less based on ability to pay than income or sales taxes are. We agree that the property tax cap has been effective and should be made permanent, but the state has contributed to rising property taxes by dumping more state costs on local governments and adding new mandates that local governments must pay for. This year’s criminal justice and election requirements are just the latest of these. The New York State Association of Counties and other local government groups are pushing back hard this year, and rightly so. The structure won’t change this year, but maybe this could be a turning point for the state to partner with local government, choose what services people can do without, make overall government more efficient and lower the burden on taxpayers.

There are plenty of other hard problems to solve in state budgeting, such as the dilemma of funding public transit in the New York City area. We wish that these would be the focus of our state legislature every March, rather than side issues — as important as those are.