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NY lawmakers return - to a changed world

New York lawmakers return to Albany this week after the President’s Week break. Normally state lawmakers would buckle down to hammering out a budget agreement, due by March 31st. The week they were gone, however, the world dramatically changed.

The criminal enterprise, known as the Russian government, has launched a war against Ukraine. Like any mob boss, Russian leader Putin does what he thinks he can get away with. He has ordered murders, invaded smaller neighbor nations, launched cyberattacks against other countries – including the United States – and intervened in American elections to help Donald Trump get elected and roil American society. He has not suffered significant penalties as the result of his behavior. Now he has initiated a major war of conquest in Europe, the first since the 1940s.

There is no way to know how this will all play out, but if stiff Ukrainian resistance leads to a Chechnyan-style response by the Russians, the violence and human suffering could spill into nearby nations, including those which are part of NATO. It’s not impossible to imagine a widening war.

Here in New York, new issues will move to the forefront. Already one lawmaker has called for the state to divest itself of Russian holdings. Governor Hochul has ordered all State agencies and authorities to review and divest public funds from Russia and ramped up cyber defenses.

But for the Legislature, higher energy prices will be a central issue. New Yorkers were already feeling the pinch and the European war will further destabilize the situation.

Some lawmakers will push for lower prices by reducing state taxes on gasoline and oil, others will push for better mass transit systems, more electric vehicles and a swifter transition to all-electric buildings. Given that Russia’s army is built on petrodollars, there should be enhanced steps to wean the nation – and the world – off oil and gas.

When lawmakers left during Valentine’s week, such a change in circumstance was not imagined.

But the state budget still has to be approved and the deadline looms. The governor and state lawmakers have a financial cushion resulting from the federal government’s pandemic relief, but that won’t last forever. The Hochul Administration argues that it will squirrel-away enough revenues to ensure that the state doesn’t have financial problems over the next few years.

Yet, there are significant problems that need to be addressed. Energy costs will move to the forefront for sure, but other issues remain – for example, what will the state do to bolster its many sagging colleges and universities?

At a time of distrust in government, however, there is more to do beyond simply getting a budget done. The governor and state lawmakers must act in a manner that bolsters New Yorkers’ support for their own democracy. The surprising defense and support of Putin’s corrupt regime by many Americans, most disturbingly from political leaders, underscores this need. Those elements in apparent alliance with the Russian government will likely seek to undermine national solidarity in support of needed responses to its aggression.

The best response to tyranny abroad is to double down on democracy at home. New York should not only respond to Putin, it must also operate in a manner that is open and accountable in order to strengthen public support.

An example: Contained within Governor Hochul’s budget are billions of dollars to be appropriated without normal government oversight. The practices of Albany’s “bad old days” simply cannot be continued under the current (or any) circumstances. The final budget should detail that spending and ensure that it is overseen by the state Comptroller’s office.

Moreover, the state should boost public support of its democracy in other ways. The governor’s budget also includes a plan to overhaul the state’s ethics oversight. It needs more work, but it’s on the “must-do” list after ethics enforcement that was essentially controlled by the state’s political elite collapsed. We do not have to look too far to see what happens when an administration feels no accountability to the public it is sworn to serve.

Those issues and approving the $216 billion-plus in spending all await lawmakers as they return. The world has changed, Albany must listen and respond.

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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