By Will Barclay
Last month, Gov. Kathy Hochul approved a long-overdue measure to restore the comptroller’s office with oversight of state contracts. This is great news and is an important first step in restoring New York’s proper checks and balances. As such, lawmakers and good-government groups across the state applauded the decision to, again, permit this additional protection of taxpayer funds. However, many questions and concerns remain, including why it took so long to right this wrong and how we can ensure such a lapse in protection does not happen again.
The balance of power and responsibility between the branches of government and their respective components is an important part of what makes any healthy government work well. During the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was prudent to give the executive’s office the needed authority to respond quickly to a rapidly evolving emergency. When that emergency was over, though, it took far too long to fully restore that balance of power.
In the wake of the emergency, New York State was forced to endure many high-profile scandals, including a pay-to-play scheme involving $637 million worth of COVID-19 test kits purchased at nearly twice the market value from one of the governor’s biggest campaign donors. If normal protocols had been in place, particularly contract review and oversight by the comptroller’s office, this example of blatant corruption and abuse of taxpayer money might have been avoided altogether.
Going forward, lawmakers need to investigate what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, what happened after the outbreak was no longer a public health emergency and what options the body has to prevent similar abuses of power from taking place in the future. To that end, the Assembly Republican Conference made countless calls for legislative action and wrote to state leadership to address the issue. Unfortunately, Democrat state leaders sat silent, seemingly content to look the other way rather than address head-on the governor’s willingness to take advantage of the relaxed procurement process.
There are many instances when it is clear immediate emergency actions are needed to effectively address a crisis. However, it is critical that normal fiscal processes are restored as quickly as possible once that threat has been eliminated. Good governance is a collective effort, and it requires multiple entities working together. Too much power in too few hands is toxic.
It’s important that the comptroller’s office will again review state contracts; after all, they represent the proper allocation of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. This is a great step in the right direction, but there is no doubt more should be done. In the coming weeks and months, I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Assembly and Senate to find ways to ensure New York’s government works fairly and with the best interests in mind for those who live here.
Will Barclay (R, C, I-Pulaski) is the Assembly Minority Leader.