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Agreement makes state budget process less opaque

The state budget, that $100 billion-plus blueprint hatched annually with a good share of secrecy, will see a bit more sunshine this year following an agreement Tuesday by Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and legislative leaders to detail -- in advance -- how hundreds of millions of dollars in annual pork barrel allotments are to be spent.

The agreement also seeks to better ensure an on-time budget by letting the state comptroller decide how much money can be spent -- always a sticky area in budget talks.

Lawmakers also will turn more quickly to joint conference committees to iron out budget differences and will show more clearly the fiscal impact of the changes they make to the governor's annual budget proposal.

But any warm feelings generated by the bipartisan budget deal quickly evaporated as Republicans and Democrats in the Senate fell into a long, nasty floor fight after Democrats sought to push through a series of rules reforms backed by a half-dozen government watchdog groups.

The proposals included stricter restrictions on gifts to lawmakers.

The budget reform deal previously was agreed to by the Legislature in large part but vetoed by then-Gov. George E. Pataki. The new deal, though, does not create an independent budget office that reform groups wanted to bring a less-partisan flavor to the annual budget talks.

Spitzer said the deal also includes providing more details about the impact a state budget has on local government mandates to discourage what he called "the shell game of burdensome cost-shifting."

The deal raises the cap from 2 percent to 3 percent on a rainy day fund, though there is no provision for the extra money to go immediately into the emergency account, and it calls for the governor's office to share more financial information with legislators earlier in the budget process each year.

It also requires the Legislature to adopt a balanced budget, which lawmakers say they have been doing anyway. The State Constitution requires only that the governor propose a balanced budget.

Spitzer, who announced the deal with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, said it will "dictate the process and also the substance of the state budget."

Long the subject of criticism by reform groups, the way the state budget is put together has come to define Albany dysfunction and secrecy. Spitzer, who said he does not oppose private, so-called "three-men-in-a-room" meetings with legislative leaders to iron out fiscal differences, said the new agreement will provide more transparency to the process.

Under the deal, pork barrel money will still flow freely. What changes, though, are the lump sum appropriations -- which began after Pataki vetoed only Democratic pork in the late 1990s -- that set aside a large pot of funds with deals made later in the year in secret on how the money will be spent.

"That way of legislating is wrong," Spitzer said. He said pork under his control also will be spelled out in detail when the budget is passed, as will funding for Medicaid, an environmental protection fund and a giant social services pot that covers everything from child care to senior citizen programs.

As the budget process was opening up, state senators argued over how far to change their rules to give more control to rank-and-file legislators.

The debate provided fodder to Democrats' claim that the GOP-led Senate needs reform. For nearly three hours, the sides debated on and off the floor whether a Democratic reform plan could be approved by voice vote or by a roll call in which individual votes would be recorded.

After nearly an hour of closed-door negotiations, the Democratic plan was killed by a raising of hands without individual votes being recorded.

Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith, a Queens Democrat, termed "laughable" the alternative rule changes proposed by the majority Republicans who rule the Senate.


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