ALBANY – The state budget agreements reached so far include no new controls or oversight on how the Cuomo administration spends money on economic development projects, and that troubles many lawmakers after federal prosecutors accused eight men of bid-rigging schemes in earlier development projects.
A day after a federal judge set a trial date for the Buffalo Billion corruption case, Republicans took to the floor of the Assembly to raise concerns about the failure to approve transparency and oversight procedures over billions of dollars spent each year on economic development.
None of the 25 projects that Governor Andrew M. Cuomo touted for the second phase of the Buffalo Billion are outlined in the budget, Assemblyman Raymond Walter, an Amherst Republican, noted during floor debate.
Assemblyman Herman Farrell, a Manhattan Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, told him that he was correct and that Cuomo has discretion over how that money ends up getting spent.
“That’s pretty scary that we give him that kind of authority,’’ Walter said.
Walter then asked the whereabouts of another $100 million to get the funding up to the full $500 million that Cuomo promised for the second phase.
Farrell said it was contained somewhere in the budget.
“We don’t know where it is right now,’’ Farrell told Walter.
“All hail the powerful Oz,’’ Walter said.
Those concerns were raised as the Legislature and governor failed, for the seventh day since the new fiscal year started, to reach a deal on a $163 billion spending plan.
Assemblyman Bob Oaks, a Wayne County Republican, asked if there were new oversight protections built into the state’s economic development programs to deal with some “corruption issues” that have arisen. He was referring to the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of a bid-rigging case against eight individuals involving several projects, including the Buffalo Billion’s construction program at the SolarCity plant.
Farrell told Oaks that there are no new restrictions on how the Cuomo administration runs the state’s economic development programs.
Corruption cases have been the work of federal prosecutors, Farrell suggested, adding "I guess they will continue” until the state puts new oversight procedures in place.
Cuomo rejected legislators' demands to expand oversight and transparency of the job creation programs, such as restoring those powers to the state comptroller. He has characterized the legislators' motivations as a quest for more pork barrel spending.
The Assembly did pass a 905-page bill that included billions of dollars for capital projects around the state. It included the Buffalo Billion money, which was included in a temporary spending measure approved earlier this week to keep the government operating until the end of May.
The Assembly also approved funding the operations of the Legislature and Judiciary for the year.
The capital bill included money for various state university campus projects, well over $500 million in pork barrel spending to be decided by the Legislature.
It also included more money for Buffalo’s Main Street project and another annual payment of $2.3 million to the Buffalo Bills as part of the deal several years ago for the team to stay in Western New York.
Senators left Wednesday evening and said they would not return to Albany until final agreements are reached on several unresolved issues.
Under a calendar approved in January, both houses were to start a Easter and Passover break this past Wednesday and not return until April 24.
Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican, said he is concerned about the level of education funding. He said the Senate doubled the amount of formula-based aid than what Cuomo was seeking. “I really want to see the final budget be at or above that number,’’ he said in an email response to questions.
Jacobs said he also opposes an effort by the governor to raid private foundations at State University of New York campuses in order to fund a college tuition program.
“For state government to do this would be an extreme government overreach and violation of public trust,’’ Jacobs said.