Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo]has inserted language that would allow him to move money between state agencies without legislative approval. He has included a clause that would allow him to give out some contracts without the customary review of the state comptroller. And he added another provision that some budget experts fear could expand his authority to borrow money for construction projects. Riding high after a string of successes during his first year in office, Mr. Cuomo is now taking an expansive, and expanding, view of the role of governor, in the name of reining in the state’s sprawling bureaucracy. But even some of Mr. Cuomo’s fellow Democrats are raising questions about what they view as a power grab. And suddenly a staple of civics class — the notion of checks and balances between different branches of government — is the talk of the Capitol.
This is a bad time for democracy.
February 17, 2012
Cuomo’s Efforts to Expand Authority Raise Alarm in Albany
By THOMAS KAPLAN, NY TIMES
ALBANY — In his proposed budget for next year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has inserted language that would allow him to move money between state agencies without legislative approval.
He has included a clause that would allow him to give out some contracts without the customary review of the state comptroller. And he added another provision that some budget experts fear could expand his authority to borrow money for construction projects.
Riding high after a string of successes during his first year in office, Mr. Cuomo is now taking an expansive, and expanding, view of the role of governor, in the name of reining in the state’s sprawling bureaucracy.
But even some of Mr. Cuomo’s fellow Democrats are raising questions about what they view as a power grab. And suddenly a staple of civics class — the notion of checks and balances between different branches of government — is the talk of the Capitol.
“I think many of us, including myself, feel that there is overreaching proceeding down the path by our new governor, and that it is ultimately not healthy for there to be excessive power in the executive branch, even though he’s popular,” said Assemblyman James F. Brennan, a Democrat of Brooklyn.
Within the last two weeks, the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, a Republican, both criticized Mr. Cuomo’s administration for a pact that allowed the state inspector general to see the tax returns of state employees. The state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, a Democrat, offered a broader critique, raising questions about proposals that his office said “would give the executive greater powers that would reduce long-established checks and balances.”
Mr. Cuomo does not dispute the notion that he is seeking more authority. But he is also in no mood to apologize, arguing that the changes he is proposing are technical and minor, and that the traditional rules and regulations of Albany have been a prescription for paralysis.
“Unless you take the position that everything is fine in this state government, and there’s no reason to improve it, then we’re just trying to make a historically dysfunctional government function,” he said at a news conference on Tuesday. “And that means there are going to be changes.”
Mr. Cuomo has been asked to address concerns over his growing authority, and his relationship with the Legislature and other elected officials, several times over the past few weeks.
Meeting with editors and reporters at Newsday this month, he said that “maybe basic competence appears as a conspiracy plot to you.” In Syracuse last week, he lamented that “Albany politicians created this system” and were now “trying to protect it.” And in a radio interview on Monday, he said that his relationship with lawmakers was “not about chocolates and candies and love,” adding that what others see as tension, he viewed simply as “both houses doing their responsibility, and my doing mine.”
“They want to be able to say where every dollar goes; I want to be able to say, ‘Give me some flexibility for efficiencies and consolidations,’ ” Mr. Cuomo said in the interview, on “The Capitol Pressroom,” a public radio program.
The concerns have become widespread enough among insiders in Albany that pollsters at the Siena Research Institute included in their most recent survey of New York registered voters a question about whether they agreed that Mr. Cuomo was “trying to impose his agenda on New Yorkers, acting more like a king than a governor.” The poll found that the concerns about the governor’s conduct did not extend to voters — 72 percent disagreed that Mr. Cuomo was acting like a king, and 74 percent said they had a favorable view of him.
But at the Capitol, concerns about Mr. Cuomo’s maneuvers have escalated over the past year, even as he has used a combination of charm, intimidation and strategic skill to push his agenda through a change-averse Legislature.
He offered an all-or-nothing proposition with his first budget last year: Lawmakers could accept his plan or he would impose it through emergency spending measures. (They accepted it.)
He also made waves by merging the state insurance and banking departments to create what skeptics have viewed as his own attorney general’s office — the State Department of Financial Services. The governor initially sought to give that agency sweeping investigatory powers that some experts said could have made it more powerful than the attorney general’s office, but he ultimately scaled back his proposal.
Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist at the State University of New York at New Paltz, described Mr. Cuomo’s approach as one of “extending institutional powers at the margins.”
“I think the governor is much more subtle and intelligent about the systemic issues than his predecessors,” Professor Benjamin said. “He pushes, and then he moves a little bit back.”
Robert B. Ward, deputy director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, said Mr. Cuomo was “very carefully and methodically exploring lots of ways to get things done.”
“On the one hand, voters, in particular, don’t like a lot of power concentrated in one set of hands,” Mr. Ward added. “On the other, people clearly became tired of Albany failing to act on some big problems. So I think the governor is trying to thread a needle here between those two sets of concerns.”
Much of the concern over Mr. Cuomo’s latest budget proposal has focused on provisions that would increase his office’s authority over financial matters — a provocative move in part because New York’s Constitution already gives the governor significant power in deciding how the state spends its money.
For example, a 130-word paragraph sprinkled hundreds of times throughout the budget would allow the governor to move appropriations between state agencies after the Legislature had approved the state spending plan. Mr. Cuomo’s budget office said the clause would allow the state to consolidate back-office services like purchasing and information technology more easily, saving hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.
Mr. Cuomo is also proposing to strip the comptroller’s office of the power to review some state contracts before they are approved. And he is seeking to allow public authorities to transfer funds among themselves; lawmakers said that could have the effect of allowing, for example, revenues from the New York Power Authority to be used to pay for rising construction costs at the World Trade Center.
Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman who wrote legislation to improve accountability of the state’s public authorities, said the provision would undo safeguards that lawmakers had put in place with some difficulty.
“It goes to the heart of the reform efforts that took six years, three governors and two attorneys general to get done, and it’s extremely important,” Mr. Brodsky said.
Even after the budget proposal’s release last month, the efforts to consolidate power in the executive branch seemed to persist. Last week, among various amendments to the budget that mostly addressed technical errors, Mr. Cuomo included a measure that would allow the State Dormitory Authority, which provides construction financing to universities and hospitals, to extend financing to many other state and local-government projects.
Several budget analysts said the proposal appeared as if it could authorize back-door borrowing. But Mr. Cuomo’s top aide, Lawrence S. Schwartz, said the reason for the measure was to employ the Dormitory Authority’s construction expertise in an effort to create jobs by expediting public works projects.
“This has nothing to do with borrowing,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It’s called making government work better and cost less.”
January 19, 2012
Budget Provision Raises Worries About Cuomo’s Reach
By JOHN ELIGON, NY TIMES
ALBANY — One of Andrew M. Cuomo’s big achievements last year in his first year as governor was taming a feisty Legislature.
But a 130-word paragraph repeated hundreds of times in the budget he unveiled this week has some worried that Mr. Cuomo might be taking his power too far.
The provision, which budget experts said was not included in previous state budgets, would give Mr. Cuomo the authority to move certain funds between state agencies after the Legislature has approved the budget.
Mr. Cuomo’s office said the provision would allow the governor to move functions from one state agency to another in the interest of efficiency, but would not allow him to cut funds for programs approved by the Legislature.
“This is part of the governor’s ongoing and aggressive effort to restructure state government and reduce costs for taxpayers,” said Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for the governor. “It’s been decades since state government has been reorganized, and New Yorkers are spending too much for too much government.”
But some current and former lawmakers said the provision would lift restrictions on what Mr. Cuomo is able to do after the Legislature passes the budget.
“The governor’s proposing that the Legislature give up its right to approve massive changes,” said Richard L. Brodsky, a lawyer and former Democratic assemblyman. “This is an expansion of his authority to act without legislative approval.”
The governor’s office wrote the language as Mr. Cuomo, who has argued that the state’s bureaucracy is wastefully inefficient, seeks to find ways to consolidate parts of the state’s administration. Last year, he established a Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, or SAGE, tasked with figuring out ways to streamline and cut the costs of running government. So, for instance, instead of each state agency having its own human resources and technology departments, the commission has been studying ways to consolidate them.
The proposed provision in the state budget, which still faces debate and a vote by the Legislature, would allow the governor to move money “for the purpose of planning, developing and/or implementing the consolidation of administration, business services, procurement, information technology and/or other functions shared among agencies.” Mr. Cuomo’s office argues that without this provision, the commission’s recommendations might be held up until next year’s budget process.
State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said it made sense for the governor to have the flexibility to put in place changes recommended by the commission. However, Ms. Krueger said she was concerned by the scope of the provision, which says that operational funds may be transferred within an agency or to any other “state department, agency or public authority” with the approval of the state’s budget director, who works for Mr. Cuomo.
“I’m concerned that the language not be so open-ended as to permit school aid funds to be moved to the highway funds, or health care funds to be moved to prisons, without a legislative oversight process,” Ms. Krueger said.
The Cuomo administration said the provision was intended to apply only to operational funds, for the administration of the government, and not for programs, like Medicaid or road building.
Senator Kemp Hannon, a Long Island Republican, was also concerned.
“If you allow the money to be moved, either within the agency or to another agency, it really eliminates the very essence of having a budget” process, Mr. Hannon said.
Elizabeth Lynam, the director of state studies at the Citizens Budget Commission, said that it was important that Mr. Cuomo had discretion to institute the commission’s recommendations, but that the Legislature could seek to put in place checks on his authority. For example, the Legislature could ask to require approval for transfers of money over a certain amount, she said. “What you don’t want to see happen is a debate or a legislative dialogue on every single item necessary to implement SAGE,” Ms. Lynam said.
February 6, 2012
Drawing Fire, Deal Gives Agency Staff Power to See State Workers’ Tax Files
By THOMAS KAPLAN, NY TIMES
ALBANY — Lawmakers and labor unions on Monday pointedly criticized a secret decision by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration to greatly expand the state inspector general’s access to tax returns filed by state employees.
The State Department of Taxation and Finance signed an agreement last month with the inspector general’s office to allow dozens of people to look at the records, as part of investigations, without needing approval from the tax department or a court.
While only a small number of investigators had previously been able to see the tax filings, the agreement, which was made public on Monday, extended clearance to 63 employees of the inspector general’s office, including several low-level aides and its press spokesman.
At a budget hearing on Monday, lawmakers assailed Mr. Cuomo’s tax commissioner, Thomas H. Mattox, over the matter. The dispute comes amid growing questions about policy moves by Mr. Cuomo that further empower the executive branch, like creating a new financial regulatory agency that critics say encroaches on the attorney general’s jurisdiction.
One high-ranking Republican, State Senator John A. DeFrancisco of the Syracuse area, described the new tax records policy as “very, very dangerous” and suggested it could allow the Cuomo administration to go on witch hunts against state workers.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. DeFrancisco raised a hypothetical situation, with the possibility that the inspector general’s office could use its new power to target a union official who had been “a pain to the administration.”
“What prevents the I.G. from starting an investigation?” he asked. Struggling to tie the employee to any wrongdoing, Mr. DeFrancisco said, the inspector general could conclude, “Well, let’s look at his tax returns and find something there.”
Asked by reporters about the arrangement, the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said he also had questions about it. “I think there are just general privacy concerns that people are entitled to,” Mr. Silver said.
The policy was laid out in a memorandum of understanding between Mr. Mattox and the inspector general, Ellen N. Biben, who last week was appointed executive director of the new state ethics commission. The memorandum states that employees in the inspector general’s office can review the records only to investigate possible misconduct by tax department employees or “tax crimes” committed by workers at other state agencies.
The existence of the memorandum was reported Monday by The Times Union of Albany. But in a joint statement, the inspector general’s office and the tax department said the arrangement was aimed only at maintaining the authority of investigatory jobs being transferred from the tax department to the inspector general’s office in an efficiency move. Though assigned to the tax department, the investigators in such positions previously reported to both the tax department and the inspector general.
The memorandum “does not, and was not, intended to expand or diminish any authority or function, and to assert otherwise would be wrong,” the statement said.
A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo said the governor had not been aware of the memorandum.
At the budget hearing, Mr. Mattox defended the arrangement by assuring lawmakers that the investigators in the inspector general’s office given access to tax records would be required to follow strict confidentiality rules.
In a telephone interview, Joshua D. Blank, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in taxpayer privacy, said “sharing of tax return information between government agencies is not unusual.”
“The interesting aspect of the memo is the chronology does shift a bit, and the I.G. employees are able to identify possible instances of abuse and then inform the tax authority,” Professor Blank said. “The idea is to treat the inspector general’s employees as though they are tax auditors.”
But Steven U. Teitelbaum, who was deputy commissioner and counsel for the tax department during the administration of Gov. George E. Pataki, described it as “not even remotely legal.”
“What it’s done is it has created a second class of individuals: if you work for the state, you have now given up your right to confidentiality on your income tax, and really all of your financial information,” Mr. Teitelbaum said.
The state’s public employee unions expressed similar concern. A spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation said the union’s lawyers were assessing the memo.
“It seems to pose a real potential for violating our members’ privacy rights,” the spokeswoman, Sherry Halbrook, said. “It came as news to us.”
A spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Association, Stephen Madarasz, said the union was also trying to determine the legality of the measure. “At first blush, it certainly appears to be an overly broad power,” Mr. Madarasz said.
Danny Hakim contributed reporting.