Relocking the “locked box”

A couple of news stories over at the Albany Times-Union caught my attention.   The first ties in with my recent posting on parks, with the suggestion that a dedicated fund be created for state parks.  The second one talks about how the State Museum has had to make cut-backs.  How are these two linked?  The reason the State Museum has problems is because it had a dedicated fund:

But rather than setting aside money in the fat years, state leaders raided the fund.

Starting in 2005, the Cultural Education Account was used to subsidize the New York State Theatre Institute, sending $13.8 million to the Troy-based troupe over the past five years. Gov. David Paterson’s administration took over NYSTI earlier this year after the state Inspector General concluded that Patricia Snyder, the organization’s producing director, engaged in questionable spending and runaway nepotism. NYSTI’s production of “A Christmas Carol” next month is expected to be its last.

The account also sent $2.9 million in subsidies to The Egg, and had $7.2 million redirected to the state’s general fund between 2002 and 2008.

Before any conservatives chime in, from 2002 to 2006, the governor was a Republican, and the Majority Leader in the State Senate was the Republican senator from … Troy.

Which is why this paragraph about creating a dedicated fund for parks stood out:

Our parks need a dedicated revenue fund, or at least that is the view of Ash and OSI director Joe Martens. The alliance will advocate for creation of such a fund.

I am assured that the details and limits of a dedicated fund are a work in progress. Because there are obvious warning flags to consider, and pitfalls abound.

A dedicated fund for parks would be administered by a state agency, no matter how many locks you put on the box. So some governor can come along and raid it anyway. History has shown that already, by repeated raids on the Environmental Protection Fund. (bolding mine)

As I mentioned in earlier posts here, it turns out that parks are incredibly popular with the people of this state.  Yes, they are willing to pay for them, just as other groups have been willing to be taxed for other dedicated funds.   People do understand when it comes to things like that.    Snowmobilers in this state lobbied for increased registration fees on snowmobiles to fund snowmobile trail maintenance.   Yes, they benefited, but so do other trail users, since the trails are multi-purpose.  Kennel owners did not complain when a fee was placed on state kennel licenses, to help fund low-cost spay/neuter programs.   Having a dedicated revenue source for state parks?  That should be an easy sell – but it won’t be.  That is because previous – and the current – administrations have abused the public’s willingness to trust  when it comes to creating a dedicated fund.

Each of the examples I mentioned in the previous paragraph are supposedly “locked box” funds for a specific purpose.  All of them have been raided – sometimes repeatedly – by governors (and legislatures) looking for a quick budget fix.   Even in good years, instead of dedicated, some have been treated as a handy source of  “off-budget” funding for some pet project.  Which is why it’s going to be a tough sell to the taxpayers of this state to create a dedicated funding source for parks.  It’s not that many will be against the idea, it’s that they want it to be strictly for the parks, and they don’t think it will be.

New York has had a history of creating what are supposed to be “locked boxes” – dedicated funds created for a specific purpose.  It’s also had a history of unlocking those funds on a regular basis.  It’s time to start relocking the locked boxes.   I have no specific ideas to propose, but I do know that I’m tired of finding out that things we’re supposed to be paying for aren’t getting done, because a governor had a key and some sticky fingers, and the money isn’t there.

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4 Comments

Filed under Parks, Politics

4 responses to “Relocking the “locked box”

  1. As I’m sure you are knowledgeable of New York is the exception but the norm when it comes to raiding lock boxes funding.

    How we re-lock these boxes – as you point out – is the question. State constitutional amendments is an awful tough way to go for each and every lock box you want to create. State Treasurers would have to find a way to stand against Governors and State Legislatures to refuse the raiding of protect funds – but I don’t see how that could happen, plus it would stop redistribution of future earned funds.

    How to stop them is the $64,000.00 question.

    • Exactly. It’s difficult for most states (except for California) to amend the state constitution, and to an extent, it should be. Here, the state Comptroller is a separately elected official, so he’s quite able to stand up to them (and they have), but the problem is that when they can just pass a law to allow it “just this once” it pretty much blocks the treasurer or comptroller from doing much about

      Governor Pataki was notorious for this during his time in office. “Sweeping” funds is basically looking around to see which accounts have “extra” money and then rolling them into the general fund. It’s a quick and dirty way to balance a budget, if the tax revenues haven’t matched spending and you don’t want to make cuts or raise taxes. The problem is that a fund may have a surplus in good years,which should be the “rainy day fund” for bad years. But because that surplus got swept, any shortfall later on causes real problems.

      The other problem, as I pointed out, is that it makes the creation of any new fund a very hard sell to the public. If I were to propose (for example) a five cent tax on soft drinks to go to a park fund, people want assurances that it would go to parks, and nothing else, and really, right now that isn’t going to be believed.

      • people want assurances that it would go to parks, and nothing else, and really, right now that isn’t going to be believed.

        And I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t believe it either. That’s what happens when governments continually “bite the hand that feeds them.”

        First government must find a way to restore voters faith. A very hard issue to tackle in this continuing era of inflamed politics.

  2. That’s what happens when governments continually “bite the hand that feeds them.”

    It’s not so much biting the hand, but something much more pernicious. Politicians are not willing to say “no” very often, or make tough budget decisions. If they see a pile of money sitting there, they’ll think of a use for it.

    One of the things that made a lot of people angry around here was the cuts in the state campgrounds – when supposedly they were “self funded” and had had a banner year the year before. What has been happening for a few years is that the money, instead of being left in the “special reserve account” (i.e.; dedicated funds), it is “zeroed out” each year, with the money put into the general fund. Then, in the new fiscal year, the budget puts money back into the account to run the campgrounds. Hence, massive cuts, because there’s “not enough money” – even though they made a profit the previous year.