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Politics and Government

Albany budget deal provides little information to the public

When the budget deal is finally reached in Albany, average New Yorkers will have had little access to the details of the important items that Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers are discussing. That's because the longtime Albany tradition known as "Three Men in a Room" continues.

The only difference from the decades long tradition of three men in a room budget negotiations is now there are four men in a room. The Senate is led by a coalition of Republicans and breakaway Democrats, and so has two co-leaders.

Reporters, lobbyists and advocates often wait for hours outside the door to Cuomo's office, waiting for the legislative leaders to emerge.

There are big issues being discussed, including how to fund a brand new program to potentially provide all four-year-olds in the state with access to pre-kindergarten, and a large package of tax cuts that includes a complicated multi-step proposal from Cuomo for a two year property tax freeze.

But, when asked about details, the responses are often vague.

Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver give essentially the same answer when questioned about whether public campaign financing or the Dream Act will be included in the budget.

"Everything is being discussed," Skelos said.

"We all draw no lines in the sand," Silver said.

At other times, the responses are more cryptic. Silver was asked about how far apart the leaders and Cuomo are on a figure for funding pre-K.

"We're not apart, per se," Silver replied. "Everything's got to fit in with everything else. That's the real key."

Reporters sometimes tried the point-blank approach to get information.

"Has there been progress that's been made that you can talk about?" one reporter asked. "Any kind of a deal or agreement, or something that's off the budget?"

"We'll have a budget in place before the end of the fiscal year," Silver replied.

The end of the fiscal year means Monday, March 31.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group has been a longtime observer of the state budget process. He says lawmakers are actually going backwards in recent years, and things have become even more opaque.

"It was always sort of maybe Potemkin-like, in terms of how open it really was," Horner said. "There were open leaders meetings where they would discuss the budget. There was a conference committee process where they would make some discussions of process. What I'm seeing now in the last few years has sort of been a retrenchment toward less and lees openness."

Cuomo has readopted the closed door method of deciding budgets and he recently defended the practice.

"Just because something is done behind closed doors, doesn't mean the process isn't transparent," Cuomo said. "You can't do everything in pubic view always and have frank, candid meaningful conversations."

Cuomo says some of the so-called open leaders meetings in the past were a sham.

"It was silly theater that accomplished virtually nothing," Cuomo said.

The governor says he has released a detailed budget plan and both houses of the legislature have passed budget resolutions, so the public should know where everyone stands. And he says the questions and answer session with the media after the leaders meetings helps provide transparency. Cuomo seldom appears after those meetings.

The governor often touts his achievement of getting the budget passed on time for the three years that he's been in office, following decades of late budgets.

Horner, with NYPIRG, says perhaps the governor has made a decision that ultimately the ends justify the means, but he noted that the public should have more insight into decisions that involve their money.

Horner says one way to help avoid the crunch that can lead to the closed door meetings is to extend the budget deadline. He says most states don't have to settle their spending plans until July.