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Debate Over "Three Men In A Room" In Albany

Office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo

Once the President’s week break is finished, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature will have to start discussing the 2015 budget.  But the traditional style of budget making in New York, known as "three men in a room," is coming under criticism, by among others, the U.S. Attorney currently investigating corruption at the Capitol.  Some are wondering whether it’s time to end the secretive practice.

The time-honored way of reaching agreement on a state budget has been for the governor, and the two majority party legislative leaders to meet for hours, and sometimes days on end, privately in the governor’s office, to hash out a spending plan behind closed doors.

It’s become known as "three men in a room." There has never been a woman governor or majority party leader in New York.

Governor Cuomo has made extensive use of the practice, and in his State of the State speech this year, he even joked about the closeness of the three players. He announced more foreign trips to China, Mexico and Cuba this year, and invited the leaders along, after the three made a visit to Israel last year. As part of his power point presentation, he  displayed a Photoshopped image of himself, and the Senate and Assembly leaders, all wearing sombreros.

“This year we’re going to be our own version of the three amigos,” Cuomo said, to laughter from the audience. “So we will ride again.”

Since Cuomo gave the speech on January 21, one of the three is already gone. Former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested, charged with a multimillion dollar fraud scheme. He resigned, and has been replaced.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who brought the charges against Silver and who is continuing several probes of corruption in state government, gave a mocking critique of the secretive "three men in a room" process during a speech at NYU Law School. He says he finds it odd that insiders make light of the matter.

“It’s weird to me, that officials and writers joke about it good-naturedly, as if they are talking nostalgically about an old sitcom,” Bharara said. “Coming up after Happy Days, it’s three men in a room. Or like it’s a hijinks comic movie involving a baby, with Ted Danson and Tom Selleck, and Steve Guttenberg changing diapers. Or maybe, I don’t know, The Three Amigos.”

Bharara, who compared the arrangement to a Roman triumvirate, says the secretive meetings have a dampening effect on democracy.

Minority Party Legislative Leaders are not usually included in the private budget talks. Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins represents 25 Senators. She won’t be in the room.

“I would  like to see an expansion,” said Stewart-Cousins. “The voices of the so-called minority [party] are important as well.”

She says Senate Democrats have provided key votes to pass marriage equality, gun control laws, and raising the minimum wage.

Senate Independent Democratic Leader Jeff Klein was briefly in the budget meetings, when he co-led the Senate, and there were four men in the room. He says people misunderstand the purpose of the meetings. Klein says the leaders are representing the interests of their members.

“A leader that’s worth their salt, which is a successful leader, listens to their members and builds consensus and negotiates a position,” Klein said.

Newly elected Speaker Carl Heastie, who will be admitted to budget meetings for the first time this year, agrees that the leader’s job in budget talks is to reflect what his party members want, in his case over 100 Assembly Democrats. 

“I think the three men in a room is a little overstated,” Heastie said.

Heastie says he’ll work out the Assembly Democrats positions on all of the budget items, ranging from tax policy to education reforms, to ethics changes, in closed  door, party conference meetings. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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