Crucial details of New York's $113 billion state budget are negotiated in secret and shrouded in darkness. But this year's gubernatorial campaign is providing real hope for change in Albany. Both major-party candidates, Republican John Faso and Democrat Eliot Spitzer, appear committed to boosting the fiscal transparency and accountability of state government.
For a starting point on turning reform rhetoric into action, the winner of the Nov. 7 election should look to Washington, where Congress recently passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006.
As President Bush noted when he signed the bill last month, the new law will allow Americans to "Google their tax dollars" by accessing a Web site featuring a searchable database of infor mation on federal expenditures.
The impetus for the bill stemmed from a growing debate in Washington over the abuse of congressional "earmarks." In the wake of Capitol Hill's latest lobbying scandals, conservatives and liberals joined forces to denounce wasteful pork-barrel spending and to call for greater public scrutiny of pork-funded programs.
In Albany, earmarks are known as "member items." Until now, state lawmakers in both parties have been even more secretive about their pork spending than members of Congress. Over the past few years, legislative leaders and Governor Pataki have agreed to whack up hundreds of millions of dollars in member-item aid through lump-sum appropriations that fail to specify how the money will be spent. And on top of that, they have invented an entirely new category of "capital pork" on which they have spent billions of largely borrowed dollarsâ€”much of which is also not itemized or rationalized in the budget.
It's possible to obtain some documentation of state pork spending using the Freedom of Information Law, as the Manhattan Institute's Empire Center for New York State Policy and several media organizations were able to do earlier this year. As a result, we were able to post on our Web site lists of 22,980 grants totaling more than $479 million to an enormous variety of organizations ranging from local little leagues to the Cuba Cheese Museum. Tax money even went to groups that exist mainly to lobby the Legislature for more money. But the sketchy lists provided in response to FOIL requests still included no details on the purpose or justification of each project, or the identity of its legislative sponsor.
The argument for more transparency in New York was bol stered Tuesday by a state Supreme Court judge, who ordered Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to disclose to the Times Union the names of lawmakers who doled out millions of dollars in taxpayer money this year on pork-barrel projects. The newspaper had sued the legislative leaders, claiming they violated the state FOIL law by concealing the lawmakers' names.
In his decision, State Supreme Court Judge Robert Sackett of Sullivan County ruled Bruno and Silver "failed to articulate a rational basis for redacting the names" of the legislators in documents given to the newspaper.
"As approved expenditures of public funds," Sackett wrote, "the public has a right to know the names of legislators associated with the funding of member item projects."
Under a New York version of the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, New Yorkers would be able to log on to a Web site, search a database of organizations receiving state funds, and find out how and why they received their grants from Albanyâ€”and who sponsored their appropriations. Taxpayers could also download complete copies of funding applications filed with the state and any resulting contractual agreement with state agencies.
Of course, pork is not the only spending issue of concern to taxpayers. The overall state-funds budget is rising at three times the rate of inflation, which is a simply unsustainable pace. The Internet could also serve to provide taxpayers with a clearer idea of how the entire budget is being spent. The next governor will not exactly have an easy time making legislators more accountable. But this should not be viewed as a partisan issue. The Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was co-sponsored in the U.S. Senate by Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, and Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democrat, and it enjoyed widespread bipartisan support on the way to passage. It also was backed by both liberal and conservative watchdog groups in Washington.
While the federal government is hardly a model for states in many respects, the newly enacted fiscal transparency and accountability guidelines are worthy of emulation in the next governor's first executive budget plan. It's one of those things that should happen on Day 1.