The mess in Albany: it's worse than you thinkI knew New York state's government was dysfunctional and totally devoid of any transparency. This summer's Brennan Center Report from New York University's law school detailed that. But as bad as I may have thought Albany was, it's much, much worse.
My local paper ran excerpts of the ground breaking investigation by the Syracuse Post-Standard on New York state's slush funds. These slush funds are controlled by the three men who dominate almost every aspect of New York's government: Governor George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. These slush funds were created in order to avoid the state's constitutional requirement that the public approve all state-incurred debt. These slush funds have cost NY tax payers over 1 billion dollars in just the last seven years.
It's worth noting that these secret slush funds are separate from the usual 'pork' contained in the state budget, which itself is hardly a model of transparency.
The most appalling part is not merely the money. The worst part, this being New York state government, is the process. As The Post-Standard describes how, starting in 1997:
The legislature and governor agree to create a multimillion-dollar program for projects to be named later. The bill they pass says the money will be borrowed but says little else.
In a private deal with no vote of legislators, the three leaders decide the details. Pataki gets a share to distribute. Bruno takes a cut for his Republican senators and Silver a cut for his Democratic assemblymen. The governor and legislators in the majority parties then pick which fire department or dance troupe hits the lottery and which is out of luck.
To pay for it, the three leaders direct the authorities to borrow the money — Empire State Development Corp. for the Republicans and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York for the Democrats. Those authorities write the checks for projects picked by Pataki, Silver and Bruno.
The leaders have never fully disclosed to the public, or even their own legislators, how they spent this borrowed money.
Millions of dollars fly around below radar, with no audits and little public scrutiny. There are few rules, leaving lawmakers to choose projects without statewide competition, with no requirement of financial need, with little concern for conflicts of interest and with a nudge from those who contributed money to their re-election campaigns. [emphasis mine]
As absurd as the state's budget 'process' is, at least it goes through nominal public scrutiny.