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Governor Hochul and state lawmakers wrap up the budget

Early Saturday morning, the Legislature approved the state’s $220 billion budget. The budget agreement was eased by billions in federal governmental financial support, as well as swelling state tax revenues. The state’s huge budget surplus made the budget negotiation process easier to manage, but it was still late – and Albany had to resort to its bag of tricks to get it done.

Governor Hochul’s first budget agreement mimicked the worst legislative processes: While meeting the state’s minimum legal requirements, the budget was negotiated in secret. Rank and file lawmakers were largely cut out of the discussions, with the major decisions hammered out by the governor and the legislative leaders and their top staffs. Once the agreements were finalized, the governor granted the leaders “messages of necessity,” which suspend the normal review period allowing them to force votes on the budget bills with little or no time for lawmakers – or the public – to review the details. And the final votes were cast in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Yet, with so much available money, the final budget added billions in spending that made many groups successful in getting some of what they wanted in state support. Despite that, the budget fell short in at least two critically important areas: climate change and ethics.

On the climate change front, lawmakers were debating the budget at the same time the world’s experts issued their most alarming call to date. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report saying that the world has very little time to act to avoid climate catastrophe. As one author put it, “This report finds that the impacts of climate change are here. In many cases they are worse than expected, and they’ve been hitting every area of the world.” The IPCC called on the world to act, and to act now.

Yet in Albany, the most significant actions to tackle climate change were kicked out of the budget. The most positive aspect of the budget agreement was approval of a $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act, the fate of which will be decided by voters in November. If approved, the Bond Act would provide $1.1 billion for flood risk reduction, $650 million for open space land conservation, and $1.5 billion for climate mitigation. While those would be significant investments, they fall far short of what’s needed – some estimates state that New York will need to spend upwards of $10 billion annually to deal with the impacts of global warming.

On a more concrete level, the budget requires that all new school bus purchases be zero-emissions by 2027 and all school buses on the road be zero-emissions by 2035. If approved by the voters, the Environmental Bond Act will provide $500 million to support school districts in purchases of zero-emission buses and related charging infrastructure, including charging stations. The budget appropriated $500 million to develop the state's offshore wind supply chains and port infrastructure. The budget also creates a geothermal tax credit to help homeowners shift away from reliance on fossil fuel heating.

But despite the alarms being sounded by the IPCC, the most dramatic moves to shift the state from reliance on fossil fuels – such as the proposal to require that all new building construction rely on electricity for power – were removed.

Another big failure was in the area of ethics.

Relying on the old Albany tactic of “applying a fresh coat of paint to a rotten building,” Governor Hochul and state lawmakers agreed to get rid of the much-derided Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and replace it with something that is essentially the same thing.

The fundamental flaw in the new ethics watchdog is that the new commission – like the old one – is not independent from the elected officials who it is supposed to oversee. The leaders still directly choose the commissioners, but they added a new wrinkle: requiring that the state’s law school deans review these direct appointments prior to final selection.

The vetting process involving law school deans or designees does not add any independence to the selection process, nor does it even create the appearance of independence. The new law says the deans will not nominate or select candidates; they will simply screen their eligibility. Just like in the current, broken system, elected officials will directly select and appoint the ethics commissioners who will pass judgment on their actions.

Under this flawed structure no member of the public can put forward a person whom they think should be considered among the pool of candidates, which other states do for independent commissions. The regulated have monopolized the identification of the persons who should regulate them.

While the law includes measures that allow the new agency to perform more efficiently and, in most instances more openly, what matters most is the agency’s leadership. The ethics commissioners will make the ultimate decisions about whether or not to enforce the state’s ethics laws and whether lawmakers, agency personnel and lobbyists have passed an ethical line.

Lawmakers have until June 2nd to finish up their work. All New Yorkers should hope these two big issues – and others – are substantially addressed before lawmakers go home to face the voters.

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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