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Brian Lehrer Commentary: Budget Watchdogs

Saturday, July 10, 2004

A budget watchdog group in New York City is urging the State Legislature to wait three days before voting once party leaders agree on a new state budget. WNYC's Brian Lehrer says there they go again.

Brian: Yes, there go those so-called watchdog groups again, trying to gum up the works of government. This time it's the Citizens Budget Commission, a private group funded largely by businesses, making an outrageous demand from the sidelines: they want the legislature to take three days once a budget is written so lawmakers can read it before voting on it. Can you imagine? All these groups want is more bureaucracy.

OK, technically, the Citizens Budget Commission is right. The New York State constitution does require a three-day reading period once any bill is introduced before legislators are allowed to vote. But isn't that just like a watchdog group to fall back on a technicality? Who elected them to anything anyway?

What they don't say is that the constitution provides a loophole in this 3-day requirement: if a bill requires fast action, the legislature may vote on it immediately. Now that's efficient. And the state budget - once it's written - will definitely fall into that category. You see, the budget is already more than three months late. It was due on April first. It's being held up by mere political considerations. Democrats and Republicans can't agree on how much of our money to spend or what to spend it on. But once they get past that, we'll need that budget to be approved overnight - or, like in most years, in the middle of the night. So we don't have to wait an extra hour past April first.

Besides, it's a big budget - a hundred billion dollars this year. We can't get all caught up in the details. If lawmakers take three days to actually read the budget, some of them are likely to come up with picayune objections to this provision or that.

For example, you know that video slot machine bill that a state appeals court just struck down? All the money from those machines was supposed to go to education. But someone slipped in a line that directed some of the money to the horse racing industry. That seems only fair. Children should learn to share. But if lawmakers have too much time to read bills like that, someone is sure to get all zealous about subsidizing the gambling industry and it'll get all bogged down. And what good would that do? The schools would have to wait longer for their money, and the court may never have gotten to review the law.

The courts. Now there's another bunch of grandstanders. They're almost as bad as the watchdog groups. Who elected them? But that's for another commentary. Maybe next week.

But anyway, these Citizens Budget Commission people plan to ask all the legislators to sign a pledge to wait three days once a budget is introduced, and actually look for things that were slipped in before they vote yes, and delay the budget even longer if they find any. And, the Commission plans to release the names of lawmakers who refuse to sign the pledge - this summer, right in the middle of an election year! Stupid watchdog groups. There they go again.

WNYC's Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.

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