EDITORIAL: Have you read the budget lately?

COMING A DAY AFTER President Obama’s inaugural address, Governor Cuomo’s state budget address Tuesday fell short in the entertainment ratings. I couldn’t find a ticket scalper with passes to the live show, so I tried to watch the governor on the web. But as the number of viewers edged up over 2,000 my computer screen froze. It was a reminder that large parts of rural New York, Columbia County among them, rely on Internet service nearly as good as North Korea’s.

Since then I’ve learned that this year’s executive budget comes with a search function that allows the public to endlessly surf the budget proposal’s numbers. Much could change by the time the legislature and governor agree on a final plan, but the data portal website at OpenBudget.ny.gov gives you a pretty good idea where the money would come from and where it would go. But faced with all that information at my fingertips I couldn’t think of a single thing to ask it.

For the curious there’s plenty to absorb. Consider education spending, which affects most of us. The governor has proposed increasing public school aid by 4.4% overall. That’s twice the increase he wants in the overall budget, yet Mr. Cuomo has apparently played by the rules he and the legislature set for the rest of the state, because total spending in his $137-billion budget proposal comes in at 1.9% higher than the current fiscal year. That’s a hair under the statewide cap on local tax increases. It may just be a coincidence, but it looks like a challenge to legislators. He’s given them a done deal and he says he won’t raise taxes.

The governor’s budget summary says the average increase statewide would work out to $300 per student. But local school district administrators know not to count on that amount. The actual figures vary widely, with some districts in the county getting much more than others for reasons that are hard for mere mortals to comprehend.

The state aid figures for each school district used to be released with great fanfare near the end of the budget negotiations in Albany, a gift bestowed by our beneficent lawmakers. So sharing the numbers this early in the process represents some progress. But education funding remains a pawn in state power struggles, and the difference between what the governor asks for now and what districts actually receive will provide a measurement of the power and his willingness to use schools as a bargaining chip.

The lesson here is never buy a used car from someone who tells you budgeting is simple. With school aid, for instance, direct state aid is only part of the budget puzzle. There are also costs over which school districts and, by extension taxpayers, have little control. These costs are often lumped together as the budget boogeyman called “unfunded state mandates.” There isn’t a local public official in this state who hasn’t bemoaned requirements imposed by Albany but paid for by property taxes.

Mr. Cuomo has begun to address this problem in a number of ways, including changes to the pension system. This budget year he has an additional, novel idea: Do away with all state reporting requirements starting a year from now for all local governments and school districts. He would retain only the reports his Mandate Relief Council deems necessary.

It’s brilliant. Scrap the mindless paperwork that nurtures bureaucracies. Kiss Big Brother goodbye. Who knows how many hours government officials of all kinds waste filling out forms that nobody reads… until something goes wrong.

That’s where the problem lies. Some forms are worthless; others exist to document situations that need attention, still others are meant to prevent problems before they occur.

In an era where the public demands more open government, an abrupt, unfocused termination of most government reporting threatens to encourage more government secrecy. Why not, instead, give local governments the authority to request an end to burdensome state reporting with an impartial council weighing the need for relief against the public’s right to know.

There’s too little space here to touch on all the other themes of Mr. Cuomo’s complex executive budget. It’s not easy reading but it could result in lasting changes, and it’s worth a closer look. The governor grasps how state government works and how to harness it to achieve his policy goals. This executive budget is the clearest expression yet of his political agenda and, like the governor himself, it’s a work in progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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