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Voters Have Say on Future Spending


Voters Have Say on Future Spending

October 4, 2005
Urban PolicyNYC

Unlike residents of 29 other states, New Yorkers don't have the opportunity to end-run their politicians through a statewide voter initiative or referendum process. As a result, we've never been able to mount the kind of up-from-the-grassroots taxpayer revolt that's shaken some other state governments to their foundations.

But in a Nov. 8 referendum, New York voters will have a rare chance to pull the lever on two ballot propositions that will determine how their money is spent for decades to come.

Proposal No. 1 is a constitutional amendment affecting the state's budget process.

Proposal No. 2 is a bond issue authorizing $2.9 billion in general obligation state borrowing for transportation.

Since New York is hardly a hotbed of direct democracy, it's nice to have a say on some big issues for a change. Unfortunately, neither proposition would bring about an improvement in the generally dismal state Capitol picture.

Start with Proposal One. Termed "budget reform" by some, it could more accurately be described as the "Lawmakers' Paycheck Protection Act."

Here's why: The state constitution now requires the state Assembly and Senate to "finally act upon" the governor's proposal before appropriating money for any other purpose. If a new fiscal year starts without a new budget in place, legislators aren't paid until they do act.

For the supposed purpose of fixing the late budget problem, the amendment would eliminate any requirement for legislative action on the governor's budget.

That proposal would simply expire if a budget is not adopted before the end of each fiscal year. At that point, the Legislature would be empowered to rewrite and add to the previous year's appropriations.

The governor would retain a veto over budget changes - but, in practice, legislators could use clever packaging to thwart any effort to control spending.

The result: even looser fiscal discipline and less accountability in Albany.

Proposal No. 2 - the transportation bond issue - is a somewhat tougher call.

New York now has nearly $48 billion in outstanding bonds directly supported by taxes - putting the state into what the Citizens Budget Commission has called a debt "danger zone."

The need to upgrade our transportation infrastructure is clear. But in a bid to please everyone, the bond act is part of a capital plan combining essential projects (such as rebuilding bridges over I-690) with mere amenities (such as the Armory Square-Carousel Center "creekwalk").

And only a portion of the total transportation capital plan is being submitted for voter approval. Billions more would be borrowed in Albany's usual "backdoor" fashion - committing taxpayers to underwrite debt for the next 20 to 30 years without seeking their approval.

Given the urgent need to control state borrowing and to separate pork from capital priorities, Gov. Pataki and the Legislature need to be instructed to take the transportation capital plan back to the drawing board.

From a taxpayer's standpoint, the best answer to both ballot proposals on Nov. 8 will be a firm "No."