ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has placed proposals deep in budget bills that would boost his power under a budget process that gives him significant leverage to enact the measures, according to legislators, budget analysts and advocates for specific programs.
The bills would eliminate traditional competitive bidding on some smaller contracts; create inspectors general appointed by him to police his administration’s dealings with public colleges and the Port Authority; create a procurement officer who would answer to him when probing state contracts and his economic development projects; and limit and sometimes eliminate input from legislators in some spending.
Cuomo’s $162 billion budget also includes a provision that would allow the governor’s budget director to make cuts to an adopted budget without the legislature’s input if state or federal revenues drop.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and several state lawmakers say the proposals would give too much power to the governor, and allow for too little input by lawmakers and other elected state officials.
DiNapoli, a Democrat, said in his analysis of Cuomo’s budget that “several proposals raise issues regarding checks and balances over use of the public’s dollars and would diminish independent oversight.”
“He is basically trying to control everything under him,” Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb (R-Canandaigua) said of Cuomo.
Years of dysfunction, corruption and pork barrel spending that drove up costs in the state budget are part of the reason to centralize control, said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.
Cuomo also says his measures would provide more accountability to the public, because he becomes responsible for the result.
For example, his budget would centralize the administrative law judge system under a chief administrative judge he would appoint. Administrative law judges decide cases by New Yorkers seeking funds and benefits from departments overseeing areas including labor, workers’ compensation, social services and motor vehicles.
Another Cuomo initiative would authorize his appointees to label and ban “bad actors” in the banking and insurance industries — a function that long has been the bread and butter of state attorneys general.
“An office independent of other agencies will result in a more impartial and efficient hearing process, a more skilled workforce, and possible cost savings,” said Morris Peters, Cuomo’s budget spokesman. “This new structure will be more adaptable to provide flexibility in caseload management and address backlogs when needed.”
Concerns on oversight
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said last week that he has several concerns about the governor’s proposals to take on more budget authority that would limit the input and role of the legislature.
“I’d say the last couple of years I’ve always pointed out to places . . . in that regard,” Heastie said. “As I’ve always said many, many times, the legislature is an equal branch of government and should be respected.”
State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) last week criticized Cuomo’s use of “lump sum” budget lines, which don’t detail how millions of dollars will be spent. The legislature faces an April 1 deadline to vote on the budget.
“When there are lump sums that are at the complete discretion of the governor, I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to do things,” Flanagan told reporters. “Legislators of both political stripes have a very good working knowledge of what goes on in their districts. They should play a crucial role.”
Azzopardi responded, “When the senator says legislators ‘should play a critical and pivotal role’ in the distribution of funds, that’s code for going back to the days of member items and pork barrel spending that were the vestiges of the old Albany. No one wants to go back there — the governor’s budget is about moving forward.”
In January, Cuomo told reporters he won’t return traditional control over billions of dollars in economic development spending to legislators despite a federal investigation involving one of his top aides and a longtime associate accused of taking kickbacks from developers to secure state grants, tax breaks and contracts awarded through Cuomo appointees.
Audit authority reduced
Many of the biggest developers involved in Cuomo’s signature “Buffalo Billion” economic development plan also were major contributors to Cuomo’s campaigns.
The Buffalo Billion project is a massive jobs program in which developers leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax breaks, grants and aid to build facilities including a high-technology solar panel factory.
Now, the governor wants to create a procurement investigator to oversee the awarding of state contracts. The procurement office would be appointed by the governor.
Cuomo’s proposals come after he and the legislature reduced some of the comptroller’s authority to audit contracts before they are awarded by the Cuomo administration.
Federal investigators are probing the Buffalo Billion project for claims of bid rigging and influence peddling by a former top Cuomo aide turned lobbyist.
Cuomo already has taken away the substantial role of legislators in doling out the pork barrel grants called member items as well as corporate tax breaks. Instead, Cuomo created regional economic development councils run by local government, education and business leaders appointed by Cuomo. Final decisions on tax breaks and funding are made by the Cuomo administration.
“I’m not going to put it in the hands of senators and assemblymen,” Cuomo told reporters in January, referring to the regional councils. “I would end the program first, because that’s how local politicians get into trouble. That’s the corruption that is the scandal. I’m not going to do it.”
Kolb said Cuomo is misleading the public in charging that the legislature is pushing back because lawmakers want to return to the days of pork barrel spending.
“This isn’t about looking for legislative member items,” said Kolb, the Assembly’s GOP leader, in an interview. “I know the governor has been citing that. It’s not true.
“It’s a mischaracterization. This is about oversight and transparency to oversee his own programs.”