Last month’s primary election results – our wins – make it clear that voters want a state legislature that stands up to the governor when it comes to budget and policy. So why are Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Carl Heastie blocking efforts to give their own members equal budget authority?
These legislative leaders, whose conference we hope to join next year, refused to bring the Budget Equity Act to the floor during last week’s session, despite widespread support among their members. This bill is first passage of an amendment to the state constitution that fixes a structural flaw in the state budget process, the most important issue Albany deals with every year.
Currently, the governor dictates the content of the budget, both for appropriations and non-budget policy, and the legislature cannot amend the language. Any policies the governor includes in the budget thus become law unless the legislature rejects the entire budget. This is offensive to the values we ran on, and to the entire idea of a representative democracy.
The habit of governors to force non-budget measures into the budget has gotten out of control. In this year’s budget, for example, Governor Andrew Cuomo inserted language to shield nursing home operators from liability if their patients die of COVID-19, no matter how negligent their actions. Virtually every legislator strongly opposed this, but because it was in the budget they were powerless to prevent its enactment.
The Budget Equity Act, sponsored by Senator Alessandra Biaggi (D. Bronx/Westchester) and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried (D. Manhattan), would restore checks and balances to this process simply by giving the legislature the power to amend the governor’s proposed legislation.
For this measure to go in front of the voters next year, both the state senate and assembly must pass it before August 3 – this coming Monday, and next year’s legislature must give it second passage. If they miss Monday’s deadline, the earliest this amendment could go on a statewide ballot would be November 2023. That would condemn New York to three more years of Andrew Cuomo’s cuts to vital programs so he can protect millionaires from paying their fair share in taxes.
We were elected on a platform of changing the status quo. We are not going to Albany to be good little soldiers or members of the Albany club. We will advocate for our communities without apology. We look forward to voting for second passage of the Budget Equity Act next year, then working with community groups across the state on a public education and organizing campaign to persuade the voters to approve it on November 2, 2021.
But Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Speaker Heastie are hiding from the public and ignoring calls by their own members to reconvene their respective houses to pass it before the August 3 deadline. Because both houses now conduct business remotely, this would be easy.
As likely future legislators, we are astonished by their behavior, as the Budget Equity Act would give them the power to be the leaders we need and negotiate the budget on equal footing with the governor. For the sake of our state, they cannot be afraid of picking a fight with Andrew Cuomo, who will resist any attempt to reduce his dictatorial control over the legislature.
We say to Andrea and Carl: Whether we’re dealing with Washington or Albany, you must stand up to a bully. There will never be a better time than now to force this issue. We urge you to listen to the voters demanding change, and stand with thousands of tenants, nurses, teachers and other New Yorkers who are suffering under the last several years of austerity-driven budget cuts.
Just this week, the Governor threatened to raise subway fares and car tolls on working New Yorkers, while the two of you are rightly calling for the much smarter policy of taxing the ultra-rich. The Budget Equity Act will give you the ability to fight for this on a level playing field. You must pass it now.
The signers all won their respective Democratic primary elections on June 23 in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. If they are elected in the November 3 general election they will take their seats in the state senate and assembly in January.