After spending hundreds of hours in meetings and hearing an abundance of public comments, guess where lawmakers will make changes to Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's $1.7-billion proposed budget for 2012?
Behind closed doors. Or in "the cloak of darkness," as Legis. Sheila Marcotte (R-Eastchester) told Newsday.com.
Despite an exhaustive month of meetings where commissioners make their case for dollars, and public hearings that draw hundreds of affected groups and interested parties, too many budget decisions -- often the more controversial ones -- are made during internal political caucuses, where there is neither an opportunity for the public, nor even discerning legislators, to weigh in on millions of dollars in changes.
That needs to stop.
Democrats will tell you the budget meetings are open to the public and the meetings are streamed live on the Internet. These points are correct, but what they won't say is that often a pet program, controversial item or series of jobs gets railroaded through in the wee hours of even public budget season with little debate. These so-called "adds" actually add up, sometimes in the millions.
In 2010, for example, legislators added $43 million in expenses and $35 million in additional revenues, including a bump in expected sales tax receipts and funds for county jobs and not-for-profits. Those actions resulted in 247 executive vetoes, many of which were overridden.
If these changes are worth considering, then there is value in having substantive policy debates about them. So, legislators would do well to support a 48-hour grace period between making final changes and actually voting on them, a concept put forth by seven Republicans on the 17-member board on Tuesday and backed by the Business Council of Westchester, one of the county's largest business organizations.
Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on a budget by Dec. 10, long before the Dec. 27 deadline, which gives them plenty of time to apply the concept. Extending budget season by a mere two days is a sound move regardless of which party is in the majority --- and it would shine more light on how taxpayers dollars are being spent.