Monday, May 03, 2004

How screwed up is the budget "process" in New York state? So much so that a visiting delegation of West African parliamentarians we mystified by the situation.

An article in The New York Times quoted several members of the delegation from Ghana, a country that experienced its first democratic transition of power only four years ago.

"We were amused by the word 'lobbyist,' " said Moses Asaga, a ranking member of Ghana's Parliament. "This lobbyist can just walk around and they get money."

Mr. Asaga didn't quite understand why power in New York State government was so tightly held by only three individuals: the Assembly speaker, the Senate majority leader and the governor. Or why ordinary legislators had so little influence on anything.

"We don't have powers concentrated to such a degree at the highest level," Mr. Asaga said. "We find this a little bit strange. We expected more debate, more opinions."

"We have a definite time when the budget must be passed," said Eugene Agyepong, chairman of the Finance Committee in Ghana's Parliament. "If we do not have a budget, the government shuts down." New York has not had an ontime budget in 20 years.

The Times noted: Mr. Agyepong said that the hardest thing to understand, in some ways, was just where all the money was going, particularly the funds dealing with domestic security. While West Africa in general is not a place where there are functioning governments, much less governments operating in a way the public can scrutinize, the delegation found New York's budget 'opaque.'
"Here we have to ask a lot of questions," Mr. Agyepong said. "You just really don't know how each allocation is spent. That is quite bleak."

Mr. Asaga noted some of the differences between what the New York and Ghanaian bodies discussed.

"They would introduce some baseball team to the speaker," Mr. Asaga said. "Someone introduced his son."

Not sure whether this was time well spent in conducting the business of the state, Mr. Asaga said that back in Ghana such antics would have drawn condemnation.

"They would have said, "What does this have to do with anything?' "

Many New Yorkers wonder the same thing.

But legislative gerrymandering prevents most legislative races from being competitive and thus most legislators from being accountable. Back when Ghana was a one-party dictatorship, it probably had a higher turnover rate than the New York state legislature.

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