We spent the past week celebrating what’s known as “Sunshine Week” throughout America, a nationally recognized initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. So it was great timing, in my view, that we also welcomed the return to this year’s budget adoption cycle of what’s known as the “joint budget conference committee process.” It’s a process that’s long been a favorite of many good government advocates, consistent with their goals to increase the public’s understanding and awareness of budget and public-finance related matters.

We spent the past week celebrating what’s known as “Sunshine Week” throughout America, a nationally recognized initiative to promote the importance of open government and freedom of information. So it was great timing, in my view, that we also welcomed the return to this year’s budget adoption cycle of what’s known as the “joint budget conference committee process.” It’s a process that’s long been a favorite of many good government advocates, consistent with their goals to increase the public’s understanding and awareness of budget and public-finance related matters.


It’s worth recalling that last year at this very same time, in fact during Sunshine Week itself, editorial boards across New York were highly critical of what was occurring in state government — namely, a closed budget adoption process. Numerous newspapers were critical that budget negotiations were being carried out behind closed doors, in secret, by then-Governor David Paterson and the Legislature’s Democratic leaders.


The actions of these leaders, many editorial writers noted, violated the intention of a 2007 budget reform law.  One local editorial put it this way, “So the latest incarnation of Albany’s three men in a room doesn’t want to discuss the 2009-10 state budget in public. That’s the word that filtered out of Albany last week. Instead, Gov. David Paterson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith may try to forgo public conference committees and do the dirty work behind closed doors, a near violation of a 2007 law passed by the state Legislature to allow for more open government in Albany.” That’s exactly what took place.


So last week we saw the return of conference committees. They’ll continue this week. Few would go as far as to say it’s the be-all and end-all of successful state budgeting, but it does facilitate openness and public scrutiny. Overall, 10 individual committees have been convened  Each committee is made up of 10 senators and assembly members, on a bipartisan basis, and meets in public. The conference committee process sets the stage for final budget negotiations between the Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo leading up to the start of New York’s new fiscal year on April 1.


We’ve already seen several committees move quickly to close key legislative agreements. For example, I serve as a member on the transportation conference committee. It’s a critical area that has a particular impact on the direction and quality of New York’s short- and long-term strategies for job creation and economic development. Our committee reached one of the first legislative agreements with Governor Cuomo’s proposal to maintain state funding for the Consolidated Highway Improvement Program (CHIPS), which provides the bulk of state aid to localities for the maintenance and improvement of local roads and bridges, at last year’s statewide level of $363.1 million. 


But conference committees can also bring to light outstanding controversies – in short, they serve to pinpoint the differences that can make or break agreement on a final budget. For example, last week’s committees brought forth important public discussions and debates in the areas of health care, the state prison system, education, oversight of state authorities, and many others. Many of these debates will continue this week and you can view them, daily, through the following Senate website: www.nysenate.gov/live_today


So I personally welcome the restoration of the conference committee process. There was a lack of public scrutiny during state budget negotiations over the past two years, and it helped produce bad, unsustainable tax-and-spend budgets. Conference committees should be part of every budget adoption — especially this year when we’re facing so many deep-rooted and substantive changes.