New York’s budget process could work much better. Here’s how.

Governor Mario Cuomo once remarked that “one fights in poetry but reigns in prose.” The same goes for the governor’s state of the state speech, followed by the budget proposals to the legislature.

The annual state-of-the-state message is largely ambitious, with lofty rhetoric and big ambitions. But the budget is a completely different document. It’s the country’s roadmap. If you want to see the government’s priorities, to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s political guru James Carville, it’s the budget, dumbass.

However, budget is no longer just about numbers. Of equal importance are the policy initiatives that 21st century governors are proposing as part of the budget.

For over two centuries, policy making was primarily a matter for the legislature and largely dealt with outside the budget. But governors from George Pataki onward have usurped that prerogative, using their court-approved budgetary powers to include all manner of programmatic legislative changes. Sometimes these revised laws had little to do with the state’s fiscal plan, but their inclusion in the budget allows a governor to use his fiscal leverage and effectively bypass the normal legislative process.

There are structural reforms that would improve the process and create a better environment for budget adoption. The first is that the start of the country’s fiscal year is to be moved from April 1st to May 15th.

The governor and her staff develop proposals over the course of four or five months. The legislature has almost two months to examine and react to these proposals. Lawmakers need more time to consider the executive branch’s thousands of pages of new budget language and proposals. Changing the fiscal year start date would give lawmakers an extra six weeks to carefully read and potentially revise budget proposals. It would also provide more accurate information on government revenue as income tax returns are filed on April 15. School districts still have plenty of time to vote on their own budgets and set their tax rates before the next school year begins. Furthermore, they would do so with the benefit of knowing exactly how much state aid was to come, as it would reduce the likelihood of government budget delays.

Another change in the budgetary process would be more effective involvement of ordinary members of the Assembly and Senate. The legislature took a good step in this direction in the late 1990s by establishing joint House-Senate conference committees to publicly discuss and consider various parts of the governor’s proposals. However, this initiative has lagged behind in recent years. These committees essentially meet only once, and that seems like window dressing. Conference committees, if used as intended, could open the process to significant input from dozens more members.

Governors should resist the temptation to usurp legislative prerogatives and respect the more traditional legislative process. If the governor continues to interfere with legislative authority, the legislature may reassert its power through overriding vetoes. This veto override mechanism has largely been dormant for decades out of deference to the governor.

Governing is always a work in progress. But getting the budget process and its numbers right is the most important thing the Legislature and the Governor do each year. You should strive to do better.

Steven Sanders from Troy was a member of the State Assembly for 28 years.

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