Monday, June 28, 2010

Closed-Door Budget Negotiations: Déjà Vu All Over Again

At this time last year, the State Senate had blown through the last scheduled day of session without finishing its legislative business for the year. The chamber, still in a state of post-coup deadlock, was unmoved by increasingly angry calls from the governor to convene in extraordinary session to pass the bills necessary to keep government entities afloat in the new fiscal year. Approval ratings for the legislature were at an all-time low, and for good reason.

Sound familiar?

Both chambers of the legislature may technically be functioning this go-round, but the rest of the scene looks all too familiar – missed deadlines, questionably effective attempts by the governor to spur the legislature to action, and even lower approval ratings.

This time, of course, legislative leaders and the governor are deadlocked over the budget (which is now three months overdue), not majority leadership of a chamber. But little else has changed. The public leaders’ meetings on the budget have been light on substantive conversation and heavy on finger-pointing. The real negotiations – the contents of which we are forced to glean from often vague comments to the press – are happening behind closed doors.

After several three-way closed-door negotiating sessions with the governor, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson decided to break with the governor over the weekend and forge a two-way budget deal. When asked what caused the breakdown, Speaker Silver was vague on the details:

“Obviously the governor called us, his staff, and briefed us on his version of a three-way deal, which was a number of things that didn’t affect the budget, that, you know, didn’t help us get there, and things that neither house wanted.”

It’s unclear precisely what elements Silver refers to here, and while details of the two-way deal have trickled out over the last day, the legislative leaders are doing little to bring the budget debate into daylight now that it is entirely within their control. Today, Senator Sampson told reporters asking about the budget deal that they were “conferencing it,” which is to say they are discussing it in another closed-door meeting, this one attended by the Senate Democratic conference. It’s difficult to say if the Assembly is even doing that much.

It is worth noting that the roots of last year’s coup could be traced in part to an opaque budget process that offered little opportunity for open and substantive debate. Apparently our lawmakers haven’t learned their lesson.

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