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Reforming The 'Budget Reform' Proposition


Reforming The 'Budget Reform' Proposition

December 19, 2005

Some people just won't take "no" for an answer.

Fresh from the voters' resounding rejection of Prop One - the so-called "budget reform" that really amounted to a prescription for runaway spending - some legislative leaders are already pledging they will revisit elements of the same dubious package.

The change most favored by Albany's self-styled good-government groups involves the creation of an entirely new arm of government - a so-called Independent Budget Office, or IBO.

The IBO's proponents claim that, among other things, this new agency could resolve disputes over how much revenue will be available in the coming fiscal year. But it's not as if we don't have enough bean-counters in the Capitol already. Consider how the process now unfolds:

The governor's Division of the Budget produces a revenue estimate, tweaked to err on the low side of a consensus derived from technical methodology detailed in a 170-page report.

The Senate Finance Committee and Assembly Ways and Means Committee generate their own estimates - invariably higher than the governor's.

The State Comptroller submits his estimate - usually somewhere in between the extremes represented by the governor and Legislature.

The proposed new budget office - supplementing, not replacing, Albany's existing budgetary bureaucracies - would simply add yet another number to this stew of educated guesses.

To be sure, a new IBO would offer a convenient new pre-retirement haven for legislative staffers in need of a few more pension credits. But that would be a high price to pay for a "consensus" that is actually well within the reach of all the parties.

The easiest solution would be to do what a half-dozen other states do: stipulate that the governor's estimate is binding on everyone, right from the start.

The Legislature, of course, won't even consider this option. But there is an alternative: let the comptroller cast a deciding vote and be done with it.

While the IBO would be wasteful and ultimately pointless, the budget process could gain from other forms of staff restructuring. For example, the Senate Finance Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee are now budgeted at a total of nearly $11 million a year, which pays for scores of full-time analysts as well as expensive consulting contracts. Much of the work is duplicative and needlessly partisan.

A worthy alternative would be to eliminate the existing fiscal committee staffs in favor of a nonpartisan, professional Legislative Budget Office serving all members in both houses - and the public, as well. (Similar staff offices exist in California and New Jersey, for example.)

This would be closer to the model of the respected Congressional Budget Office, which supporters of the IBO claim they want to emulate.

By itself, streamlining the Senate and Assembly staff bureaucracy will do nothing to ensure better budgetary results. But at the very least, it will ensure that when lawmakers insist on making expensive and wrongheaded budget choices, they will do so with their eyes wide open.