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Blair Horner: Nation Celebrates "Sunshine Week" While Albany Huddles In Darkness

This week is “Sunshine Week.”  Since 2005, Sunshine Week has focused public attention on the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

Unfortunately, Sunshine Week has brought little to the darkness that has enveloped Albany for decades.  For as long as anyone can remember, state governmental decisions are most likely the product of closed-door meetings.  Of course, that’s not to say that nothing has changed.  New Yorkers can now access more government material than ever before, and that process has accelerated under the Cuomo Administration.

But when it comes to the process of how decisions get made, little progress has been made.  The most recent example is the state budget.  Under last year’s budget deal, the state Legislature granted Governor Cuomo unprecedented powers over the state’s finances.  The rationale at that time was no one was sure how the COVID-19 pandemic was going to play out, and speed and flexibility were needed to respond to the emergency.

The agreement allowed the Cuomo Administration to "withhold" budgeted money to get through uncertain times.  Those "withholdings"—which are effectively cuts—amounted to roughly $3 billion, according to a recent state Comptroller's report.

The Administration was supposed to alert the Legislature to the details of how state monies were “withheld” from programs and whether spending had been cut.  Yet, according to documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, the Legislature has received only a fraction the details of how the Administration controlled state spending.

According to a coalition of civic groups, state records showed that in 2020, the Administration notified the legislature of about $700 million in specific withholdings, compared to a total of $3.1 billion in withholdings according to the state Division of Budget’s Executive Budget financial plan.  Based on those records it means that less than one-quarter of funding “withholds” have been made public.

The governor’s budget office has said that all but 5% of these withholdings reported by the governor—lumped into 10 different categories under "local aid payments"—will be restored before the state's new fiscal year begins on April 1st.  But without knowing the exact amounts of the withholdings, and which agencies they affected, it is impossible to verify whether those restorations took place.

One entity impacted by the “withholds” is the City University of New York, the country’s largest urban public university system, which receives most of its funding from the state.  According to the CUNY faculty union, the budget withholds has meant that 2,900 adjunct professors lost their jobs, although it looks like about 1,000 have been hired back.  

Governor Cuomo's budget proposal would also continue the cuts made to entities like CUNY into the next fiscal year, which runs April 1, 2021 through March 31, 2022.

Recent revelations have highlighted another area of governmental opaqueness: the apparent failure to provide a full accounting of COVID-19 nursing home deaths to the public, the Legislature, and the federal government.  The Cuomo Administration had refused to comply with a watchdog group’s Freedom of Information Law request for this same data until a judge ordered that the information be disclosed. 

Both actions underscore the need for more governmental openness, not more secrecy.  When it comes to the “withholds,” how can the Legislature and public know how much the governor’s office has taken from funding appropriated to agencies, authorities, local governments, and specific programs?  Without full disclosure, the Legislature and public cannot verify that COVID budget impacts have been shared equally by all stakeholders.  How can a new budget plan be devised if legislators don’t know whether and how the money they allocated last year got spent?

More fundamentally, how can the public and the Legislature know how best to understand governmental decisions if the Administration holds back disclosure of public documents?

Our form of democracy hinges on trust.  We vote for representatives and give our informed consent to those lawmakers making policy decisions on our behalf.  This is a sacred duty to the public.  That system simply cannot succeed when important decisions and information are withheld from public access.

It’s long past time for Albany to take “Sunshine Week” to heart and move its system of governance from one of secrecy to one of openness.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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