ALBANY — Will lawmakers pass an on-time budget in the coming days? That’s the big unanswered question in the Capitol at the moment.
But there’s another unanswered question related to the proceedings, a question that has been debated for much longer than issues like bail reform or pied-à-terre taxes, a question that could very well decide how this year’s budget is remembered:
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What, exactly, is time?
It’s no mere academic question, even if it sounds like something from a college lecture. For the answer to that question could decide whether or not lawmakers qualify for another pay raise.
After receiving a bump to $110,000 in January, lawmakers are poised to see their pay go up to $120,000 next year. But that boost will go into effect only “upon the timely passage of the budget,” according to the statute that led to the raises.
The statute, however, does not explicitly say what “timely” is. Usually, that word would suggest something that is in fact on time, meaning the budget would need to be completed by 11:59 p.m. on Sunday in order for the new raises to take effect.
But the usual rules of dictionaries and physics don’t always apply on what former Gov. David Paterson dubbed “Planet Albany,” where “there is no gravity and light waves bend around the Capitol.”
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider what happened in 2011, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo was pushing for the budget bills to be passed by March 30 so he could brag about an “early” budget — this after years of budgets that sometimes were months late. The Assembly didn’t get around to finishing their work until the wee hours of March 31.
Or so it seemed.
But lawmakers stopped the clock in their chamber a little bit before midnight. The vote sheets from that day showed that the final four bills were all approved at 11:55 p.m., meaning that for all official purposes, the budget did in fact pass on March 30.
Stopping the clock as it nears the witching hour was not a one-time occurrence in Albany — lawmakers seem to have regularly employed the practice when it helped to ensure an on-time budget.
But this year, it’s not just about perception. There’s money on the line — lawmakers won’t get their raise if they don’t pass a “timely” budget. So what happens if they stop the clock this year and the budget passes at, say, 4 a.m. on April 1 in Eastern Standard Time but 11:59 p.m. on March 31 on Planet Albany? Or what if they pass it after the deadline, but early enough to avoid any problems with the state payroll? Could legislators simply declare that everything was timely and demand their $10,000 pay increase?
“Timely is something that’s certainly discretionary,” said Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Chemung County). “Governor Cuomo, every one of his budgets, has been ‘timely.’ Some of them have happened after April 1.”
Indeed, Cuomo’s first four budgets were all indisputably done on time, and he regularly boasted about what a rare feat that is. In 2013, for example, he bragged about “three consecutive, on-time budgets” for the first time since 1984. That was true, but only if one took a hard line on timeliness, discounting budgets from prior decades that passed in the early hours of April 1.
But as three of his four second-term budgets slipped past the deadline, the governor shifted his characterization from “on time” to “timely” — the same phrase that’s in the pay raise legislation.
“’Late, I consider anything over 30 days,” Cuomo said after the budget passed nine days past the deadline in 2017. “A week, I consider ‘timely.’”
And as these tardy budgets have slipped a little further into the past, Cuomo’s characterization has grown a little more generous. There were at least a few occasions during last year’s re-election campaign when he boasted of “eight on-time budgets.”
While Cuomo’s campaign rhetoric is unlikely to be the determinative factor on whether legislators get their raise, the relevant statute, notably, does not specify who exactly makes the call.
“If you’re a day or two late, who defines timely?” said Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Suffolk), who signed onto a lawsuit against the raises. “Is that the commission’s call; is that the governor’s call? I don’t know. If we’re done by Sunday at midnight, we’re fine. If we pass it on Monday, that’s technically the first day, but does that qualify as on time? It would be timely … I don’t think anybody’s been given that authority to make the call.”
Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, a member of the commission that granted the raise, would need to authorize any higher paychecks for legislators. His office did not immediately have an answer when asked what would be considered timely. No matter what he decides, dissenters could presumably attempt to force or block a raise through the courts.
Neither the Assembly nor Senate Democratic majorities had a response when asked what they would consider to be timely. And for what it’s worth, members have insisted that it’s not on their minds at all.
“That has not come up one time in my discussions with the conference,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie recently said when asked how the raises were coloring budget talks.
Cuomo — whose agency heads would also miss out on a raise if the budget is not timely — has suggested on a few occasions that timely simply means on time.
“We said [raises] would be performance based and the performance for the legislature, the one benchmark is get the budget done by April 1,” he said in a recent radio interview.