Cuomo’s prison panel irks Senate Republicans

Cuomo’s prison panel irks Senate Republicans
February 14, 2011

ALBANY — Senate Republicans are criticizing Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a task force that would recommend prison closures, saying the move usurps the power of the Legislature and gives too much authority to Cuomo and the prisons commissioner.

The concerns are emblematic of issues being raised that Cuomo’s budget is lean on specific ways to close the state’s $10 billion budget deficit, leaving crucial decisions to committees that have yet to report their findings.

A budget report from Senate Republicans found that 44 percent of Cuomo’s cost-cutting plan, or $3.9 billion, lacks any specific programmatic reductions — including $2.8 billion in savings being sought by a Medicaid Redesign Team. Its recommendations are to be released March 1.

“The form of the Executive Budget submission presents real challenges to the Legislature’s ability to review the governor’s budget proposals,” the report states.

Senate Republicans have been particularly irked in recent days by Cuomo’s order Wednesday to create a prison closure task force that won’t report its findings until 30 days after the budget’s adoption.

Instead, Cuomo is asking lawmakers to approve the state budget with $72 million in savings from prison closures, but without knowing up front which facilities would be impacted. And the task force’s recommendations aren’t binding, with the final decision left to the commissioner of the state Department of Correctional Services, currently Brian Fischer.

“I can tell you there are many members of our Senate Republican majority who do not believe this is the appropriate path that should be taken,” said Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette, Seneca County, who heads the Senate’s Crime Victims, Crime and Corrections Committee.

Senate Republicans said they agree with Cuomo that savings need to be found in the corrections system, where the prison population has dropped from 71,600 in 1999 to less than 56,300 currently.

But they questioned Cuomo’s decision to create a task force after the budget process and have it focus exclusively on facility closings, not on other cost-savings measures, such as having fewer prison superintendents and adding co-pays for prisoners’ health insurance.

“If you’re truly sincere in trying to solicit ideas and incorporate those ideas, then you need to have this as part of the (budget) decision, not after the fact,” said Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, Oneida County, who has two prisons in his district.

Prisons have long been a well-protected interest of Republicans in upstate, where jobs from the facilities are critically important to some communities.

But Cuomo has said that prisons and juvenile detention facilities should not be viewed as employment programs and need to be reformed to lower costs. He said there are at least 3,500 excess beds at minimum and medium security prisons in New York. He is offering up to $100 million in funding to communities who lose prisons, up to $10 million per community.

Cuomo’s aides said the task force, as well as other groups targeting savings in the budget, are aimed at including stakeholders and lawmakers in the process — not excluding them. The Capitol has long been criticized for the “three men in a room” process of governing — in which legislative leaders and the governor make decisions behind closed doors.

The prison task force will include 16 members, including legislators, unions and industry officials.

Other efficiencies in the prison system will be found through the budget process, which includes a 10 percent spending cut for Department of Correctional Services. The agency in recent years has consolidated some services and facilities.

The deadline to pass a budget is April 1, the start of the fiscal year. The task force won’t start meeting until the budget is approved.

“This is a new and different approach to work collaboratively,” said Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto. “These are tough times and everyone has to sacrifice, and we want to bring all the stakeholders together to get the state’s fiscal house in order.”

Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, expressed concern that Cuomo’s budget includes language that could strip the Legislature of some of its role in shaping the spending plan. For example, the Senate Republicans’ budget review states that the budget proposal would allow the health commissioner to “unilaterally modify virtually any law necessary” to implement the Medicaid Redesign Team recommendations.

“This budget is sprinkled with examples in which, in effect, the Legislature is being asked to abide affectively by the mood of the executive,” said Saland, who has three prisons in his district.

Saland said that if the prisons commissioner ultimately decides which facilities to close, the panel could “turn out to be nothing more than a smokescreen and I’m deeply troubled by the potential impact on those respective communities.”

But some lawmakers said Cuomo is right to include a wide variety of groups into the decision making process. So far, Cuomo’s tactic has been able to largely stave off expensive ad campaigns from special-interest groups attacking his budget plan.

“Instead of having the finger-pointing and the commercials, we have stakeholders in the industry deciding their own destiny, which I think it’s a good thing,” said Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx.

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