This year's state budget negotiations follow closed-door tradition

Mar 28, 2013

It's known as the “three men in a room” style of decision making. For decades now, the governor and the two party's legislative leaders meet behind closed doors in the governor’s offices and decide key issues, like the contents of the state budget.

The press also plays a part. They stand outside the door of the meeting room and wait for news, sometimes for hours at a time. When the leaders emerge, they often have little to say.

On one day, for example, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was asked about the talks of increasing the state's minimum wage.

"There's no agreements until there's a total agreement,” was all he had to say.

There has been one change in the tradition: This year there are four men in the room. The senate is led by a coalition of Republicans and five members of a breakaway Democratic faction. The leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, Sen. Jeff Klein, though new to the private meetings, also proved adept at circumspection. Klein often leaves the meetings with senate majority leader Dean Skelos.

"Every time we come out of there, it gets closer,” Klein stated briefly, after one meeting.

The leaders are often aware that their enigmatic answers can be frustrating. Silver, tongue in cheek, likened the budget process to another secretive tradition.

"There'll be white smoke soon,” the speaker said.

The legislative leaders may maintain that the private talks help to mold complex deals that would be in danger of falling to bits and pieces if parts of it were reported to the public.

But the secrecy can also backfire, sometimes with embarrassing consequences. Before the budget, lawmakers approved tough gun control laws in January. Unlike in other states, there were no public discussions or hearings of the proposal. Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave a special message of necessity to wave the normal three-day waiting period and the bills were voted on immediately and passed.

Weeks later, lawmakers realized there was a problem with the law. It would ban the sale of 10-bullet clips but the 10-bullet magazines were still legal for use at shooting ranges and in competitions. Cuomo was left in the awkward position of trying to explain that he is not rescinding, just changing a key provision in the new laws.

"It is inconsistent to say you can have 10 bullets at a range or a competition but you can't have a magazine that can hold 10 bullets. You have to be able to have a magazine that holds 10 bullets,” he said.

For now, the governor and lawmakers have decided to postpone the ban.

When it was time to vote on the budget, Cuomo and lawmakers decided to let the bills go through the normal three-day waiting period before acting on them so the public could have a chance to read them. But after the three days were up, at precisely 12:01 a.m., the Senate began voting - finishing up a few hours later. Senate Deputy Republican Leader Tom Libous defended the all-night session.

"The public doesn't care because the bills have aged. We'll all go back home and do our thing. They just want to know 'did you get the budget done.' When I went home for a brief period, 'did you get the budget done?'" he said.

Sue Learner with the government reform group Common Cause says New Yorkers do lose something when government is not conducted in the open.

"We have concerns about the fact that the ultimate debate ends up being from 12:10 to 4:30 in the morning and that sends a message to ordinary New Yorkers that they aren't really to be concerned about the process. And yet the budget is the part of state government which most directly effects ordinary New Yorkers," she said.

The state assembly takes up voting on the budget later Thursday. They say they plan to hold most of the debate in daylight.