Transparency took a hit across New York state this week with Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoing five pieces of legislation intended to open up government.
The most prominent of these is the so-called “transit lockbox,” a bill unanimously adopted in the legislature that would have effectively walled off dedicated transit funds by triggering public disclosures when funds are diverted for other uses.
But the governor also killed another four bills that sought public hearings or disclosures on issues ranging from real property taxing to new state agency rules.
The vetoing of the transit lockbox by Cuomo — for the second time after the bill was first introduced 2011 — has drawn an outcry from a large coalition of advocates that had put its weight behind it.
Among them, John Kaehny, executive director of the good-government group Reinvent Albany, said Cuomo’s gutting of the bill was “unfortunate.”
“What’s really happening here is the governor’s office and the governor himself are asserting their prerogative for budgeting as flexibly as they want to,” Kaehny said. “The governor and his Division of Budget in particular do not like anything that raises the political cost to them of diverting money or moving them around.”
The transit lockbox bill sought to regulate the time-tested practice of siphoning funds earmarked for transit, which many administrations have resorted to in order to balance their budget. Earlier this year, Cuomo redirected $20 million from this pot of money.
“This legislation is almost identical to a bill passed by the Legislature in 2011,” the governor’s veto message said. “The Legislature has not articulated a sound basis to change the current law.”
Other transparency-related bills include a pair (here and here), introduced by Manhattan Assemblymember Dan Quart, that would have made public key information about how individual New York City property tax bills are calculated.
Cuomo explained in his veto statement: “New York City advises that this unfunded mandate would require it to, at significant cost, recode [Department of Finance] systems for very little benefit.”
Quart’s chief of staff, Amanda Wallwinn, said the bills sought to give taxpayers a better sense of how the Department of Finance gets to their property assessments by simplifying access to documentation it already produces.
“The information is available online but it’s in a number of different places. You have to hunt for it,” she explained, adding, “We think that this kind of transparency is important.”
The defunct transparency bills also include one that would have required state agencies to detail the benefits and costs of proposed rules, and another that called for hearings in cases of MTA fare hikes.
At Effective NY, a progressive good government group focusing on Albany, Executive Director Jesse Laymon said that he was “disappointed, but not surprised” by the vetoes.
Cuomo’s ran for governor by pledging to operate one the most transparent governments in New York state history when he ran for office, but has been repeatedly attacked for falling short of that promise.
“It’s part of a broader pattern and sort of unfortunate Cuomo culture of backroom deals versus public statements,” Laymon said.