Monday, November 23, 2009

Taking Authority Over Authorities

Last week, New York State took a major step forward toward government accountability by establishing oversight over most of the nearly 1,100 authorities that have governed in our state for decades without checks and balances.

Authorities - The Shadow Government

Authorities in New York State operate as if they are self-contained independent governments. They collect fees and issue bonds. They often have layers of their own bureaucracy and have, until now, never been forced to operate in a transparent manner or face the scrutiny of any other part of the government. These authorities are often referred to as a "shadow government" because of their enormous power and lack of oversight by other entities.

There are many estimates of the number of authorities operating in New York State, but the New York State Comptroller's office has suggested that the total number approaches 1,100. Some of the most well-known and most important are the Port Authority (which manages each of the major New York City metro areas airports as well as several bridges and tunnels), the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which manages New York City's subways and buses), and the Dormitory Authority (which builds all of the public hospitals and higher education buildings across New York State).

In total, these authorities have built up a debt load of $150 billion and are key sources of employment and governance within our state.

Oversight From Albany

In a major development that changes the shadow government into a set of quasi-governments that are accountable to the state government in Albany, Governor Paterson signed legislation last week that brings the authorities out of the shadows.

While some experts have suggested that reform must go farther than simply demanding accountability and must include reducing the number of authorities as well as limiting their power, the first step is a necessary and valuable part of improving the overall quality of government and the level of accountability in our state.

The reform legislation will:

1) Establish the creation of an independent Authorities Budget Office to oversee authority operations
2) Allow for Comptroller review of contracts for more than $1 million that do not result from a competitive bid process
3) Mandate enhanced financial reporting, mission statements and measurement reports by public authorities, so that the State and the public know what authorities are doing, as well as their financial condition
4) Strengthen the rules governing the disposal of property by public authorities to prevent the give-away of public property to private developers
5) Strengthen the rules governing contact between lobbyists and employees of public authorities
6) Regulate the formation of subsidiary corporations and the issuance of debt by subsidiaries in order to place limits on the amount of debt issued by those corporations
7) Require board members of a public authority to perform their duties in good faith, in the best interest of the authority, its mission and the public in order to ensure that public authorities act responsibly
8) Create a Whistleblower Access and Assistance Program to protect those individuals who report wrongdoing.

With improvement in Albany still necessary, we are pleased to see Albany starting to take control of the authorities that play such a major role in our lives.

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