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Critics Say New York Budget Being Crafted With 'Unprecedented Secrecy'

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03/29/2020 | 05:14pm EDT

By Jimmy Vielkind

Advocacy groups of all stripes are concerned they have been shut out of the state budget negotiations set to conclude this week, a deal one longtime watchdog said is taking shape in "unprecedented secrecy."

The state Capitol in March normally teems with lobbyists, citizens and officials from around the state pushing to be heard as the budget comes together. State legislators' days are scheduled to the minute, and people seeking their attention can be lucky to get in a few moments during a chance encounter near the floor of the chamber.

All that ceased when the building closed to visitors on March 15 as the coronavirus spread. Legislators voted on a handful of bills on March 18, but remain scattered around the state. The traditional avenues of influence adapted by necessity.

On Friday, Citizen Action of New York, a progressive advocacy group, held a "car rally" where people honked on the street outside the Capitol to protest any changes to the state's new bail law, which eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor and nonviolent felony offenses.

For most of January and February, the group held weekly rallies inside the building, arguing that the law -- which took effect Jan. 1 -- has reduced economic and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

Law-enforcement officials as well as elected leaders in both parties, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, believe the bail law should be amended to let judges consider public safety when deciding whether to detain someone before their trial.

"To roll back the bail law now or down the line is to set up for devastation in the face of this pandemic," because it is difficult to contain the virus in jails, said Erin George, the civil rights campaign director for Citizen Action.

The Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for greater school funding, held a virtual news conference on Friday to urge legislators to raise taxes on the wealthy rather than cut services.

Brian Sampson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire State Chapter, said the contractors he represents had to fall back on letter-writing and social-media campaigns to lobby lawmakers. Contractors are battling against building-trade unions over a provision that would broaden the definition of public works that require a higher, prevailing wage rate.

"It's obviously been very difficult. You're relying on phone calls, text messages and emails, and you're hoping your message is being heard," Mr. Sampson said.

Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, both of which are controlled by Democrats, didn't release their own draft budgets to counter the $178 billion spending plan Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled in January.

Instead, the Democratic governor has been talking directly with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. This practice of three people in a room is common in Albany, but without rank-and-file lawmakers close by, regular briefings have been relegated to conference calls.

"Albany in the best of times is secretive," said Blair Horner, a longtime leader of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization. "We're now entering a black hole of information where even light can't escape. It's as dark as dark can be. Unless you're hiring the hot-wired lobbyists, it's hard to find out what's going on."

Mr. Cuomo has appeared regularly in the Capitol to offer updates on the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak, and he has fielded some budget questions. The coronavirus has had big impacts on the state economy and decreased revenue projections by around 15%.

"This is the easiest budget we've done," Mr. Cuomo joked to a legislator recently and recounted during a public radio interview. "We have no money."

THE QUESTION: New York's budget must be in place by April 1, but lawmakers often miss the deadline. How many days late was the tardiest budget, and who was governor when it was finally adopted?

-- Know the answer? Leave a comment!

THE LAST ANSWER: Governors John Dix, William Marcy, William Seward, Horatio Seymour and Silas Wright each have mountains named after them in the Adirondack Park.

Write to Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com


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