The next mayor of Buffalo will have giant budget holes to fill; a hard control board is needed

There is much at stake in this year’s election for Mayor of Buffalo which will affect every city resident and others beyond the city limits. The decisions that have been made in City Hall in recent years have left giant holes in the city’s operating budget. Previous posts have detailed some of the major budget issues. You can read those posts here and here.

American Rescue Plan money which is arriving over a two year period will help with many things, but when it comes to the city’s operating budget the value will be fleeting. The legislation that created the relief pot of money has requirements and limitations on the use of the money. The law in part states that the funds may be used to:

“(A) respond to or mitigate the public health emergency with respect to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID–19) or its negative economic impacts;

“(B) cover costs incurred as a result of such emergency;

“(C) replace revenue that was lost, delayed, or decreased (as determined based on revenue projections for the metropolitan city, nonentitlement unit of local government, or county as of January 27, 2020) as a result of such emergency; or

“(D) address the negative economic impacts of such emergency.

Mayor Byron Brown’s administration has released a draft plan for the use of the Rescue Plan funds over the next two years.  The majority of money will go to a variety of public works, housing and social service related activities.  The biggest single portion of the funds, however, will go for the replacement of revenues that were “lost, delayed, or decreased” due to the pandemic.  One hundred million dollars is assigned for such purposes.

The $100 million for revenue loss replacement, according to the plan, will be allocated 70 percent toward the already completed 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 fiscal years revenue holes and 30 percent for the 2021-22 budget.  While the plan identifies general categories of revenue losses, details are lacking.  The amount of sales tax and parking revenues that are claimed to have been lost seems to be on the high side but cannot be definitively determined without further documentation.

The Brown administration is also reporting that the replacement of revenues includes $4 million for traffic improvements; $1.5 million for city cybersecurity; $1.2 million for Buffalo Urban Development Corporation operating assistance; and $0.53 for BFD Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus upgrades.  It would be interesting to know how they are justifying such expenses as revenue replacements to the Treasury Department.

In addition to the direct use of the money to fill budget revenue gaps the administration also expects to use $5.5 million “to provide low-income residents with assistance in clearing any debts or outstanding bills related to their City [garbage] user-fee.”  Money going toward residents “clearing any debts or outstanding bills” likely means that the debt forgiveness cash will directly or indirectly find its way into the city’s general fund.  Likewise with another allocation of funds in the plan: “$13 million will be allocated to forgive the outstanding balances of every household’s water and sewer bills.”

Add up the revenue replacement ($100 million) plus the four spending projects ($7.23 million) plus the debt and outstanding balances forgiveness ($18.5 million) and you have a tidy $125.73 million in some form of revenue replacement relief.

The one-time federal money is filling budget gaps over a three fiscal year period that will end on June 30, 2022.  So what happens then?  How will the city fill the recurring gaps after that date?  Here is what the plan says about that:  “             .”

Overestimating revenues and the lack of real planning concerning the out-year finances is nothing new for the City of Buffalo.  The Brown administration, the Common Council, and more recently the City Comptroller’s office have been mostly vague or simply not forthcoming in providing such information.  Hoping that any of the city powers-to-be can or will step up now to speak truthfully about the seriousness of the city’s financial problems and propose the hard solutions that are necessary is not something you might want to hold your breath about.

As you might have noticed there is an election for mayor in 2021.  So where does the winner of the Democratic primary stand on these issues.  Who knows?

India Walton’s campaign website has a Key Campaign Issues section which outlines some short and long term goals. The document, like many campaign policy plans, is long on generalities and action verbs (prioritize, establish, increase, create, etc.) but lacking in details about how to implement or pay for its proposals.

The only direct reference to the city budget is a comment about including the public in annual budget development.  All well and good.  But we have no idea what Walton knows about the city’s financial difficulties or if she will be proposing her own plans for the budget, both long and short term.  We also know nothing about who might be advising her about such matters.  We see various proposals for creating or expanding programs but there isn’t a dollar sign anywhere for anything.

It is understandable that a campaign is about winning and the governing part comes later.  But Walton has a serious chance of taking over as mayor in five months so it is not unreasonable to want to see her put numbers to paper so that city residents and other interested parties can kick the tires and see if their purchase (vote) is worth it.

With reserves exhausted and budgets balanced only in a theoretical sense it is clear the Brown administration has major short comings in managing the city’s money going forward.  The Common Council and the Comptroller have shown little or no interest in setting the city straight.

Walton’s campaign has been mostly about process and generalities about what she wants to do. There are no plans, no specifics, and no indication that Walton is ready at this time to manage the city’s finances.

This all means that the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority has to be brought back to life as a hard control board no matter who is elected mayor.  A hard control board will have the power and authority to nudge or push the mayor who is in office in January to make the hard decisions that allow city government to function properly.

The problem is, the control board itself is not able to function appropriately and aggressively.  Excluding the mayor and the county executive, who are ex-officio members, there are supposed to be seven members.  There are four.  The quorum requirement for board action is five members.

One of the current members had his four-year term expire six years ago.  Two other members’ terms expired more than four years ago.  The only member whose term is current is Andy San Filippo, the former city Comptroller and Deputy State Comptroller.  San Filippo is more than capable of doing what needs to be done but he needs help. 

When the federal operating budget relief money dries up next year the city budget will have gaping holes to fill.  The State of New York already provides more than $160 million annually to support the city.   Unless the governor and State Legislature are willing to come up with millions of dollars more every year they need to look at alternatives.

The federal funds are buying the city a little time but it is up to Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators to reconstitute the Buffalo control board and direct the new members to actively step forward to respond to the city’s fiscal crisis.

There have been several local news stories dealing with past negative actions of one of the candidates.  More charges will fly back and forth between both campaigns before it’s over on November 2nd.

This blog will leave such things to others who have an interest in discussing them.  What is important is what the candidates know, what they plan to do, who comprises their respective teams, and how honest they are about such things.

There are many things to review in the coming weeks not just about the city’s finances but also program proposals and how they might serve the public.

Watch this space.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly

The filibuster issue

So when does reality set in in politics?  When do we stop thinking that Mitch McConnell and Joe Manchin are going to change?  Why continue to think that the filibuster is going away in 2021?

If you take a look at the Constitution the only requirements for supermajority votes are for amending the basic document or to pass on a proposed amendment to the states; calling a Constitutional Convention; impeachment conviction; expulsion of a member of Congress; overriding a presidential veto; ratifying a treaty; and implementing the 25th Amendment concerning removal of the President.  All other actions of both houses of Congress only need majority votes.  Both Houses set their own rules of operation.

The Federalist Papers, written by founders James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to explain the Constitution and how it is intended to work, validate that majority rule was intended to be standard operating procedure for both Houses.  The Great Compromise, which gave each state two members of the Senate regardless of the state’s population, was the founders’ way of providing some balance to smaller states.

Early in the history of the country Senators like John Calhoun made various attempts to circumvent majority rule by claiming that states had the right to “nullify” federal laws they did not agree with.  That movement was shut down by President Andrew Jackson.

Originally the Senate operated on an honor system of sorts which allowed members to continue to talk on an issue unless other members concluded that the discussion was serving no useful purpose, at which point the presiding officer would shut down the talking.  If the Senate still operated under the no-useful-purpose rule we probably would never hear speeches by members like Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz.

The earliest filibusters were your basic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” sort that required the talking member to never stop or take a break.  Eventually the Senate got around to allowing a filibuster to be ended with a supermajority vote.  Originally the magic number was two-thirds of the members present and voting, later changed to three-fifths.

With a supermajority requirement a relatively small number of senators, often representing an even smaller percentage of the total population of the country, could work their will to block legislation that they did not agree with.  Segregation senators used the rules to bottle up bills they wanted killed.  Mostly that applied to civil rights legislation.  Such was the case for many decades.

The current filibuster system operates a lot differently than the Mr. Smith version.  Now a senator, often through a staff member, simply notifies the Senate’s administrative staff that they want to put a “hold” on a bill.  There is no need to even show up on the Senate floor to speak.  In other words, a corrupt arrangement has been made even worse.

Which brings us to 2021.  President Joe Biden and various members of Congress have some ambitious plans for changing the way the federal government operates and how it funds its activities.  In the highly charged partisan atmosphere that the government operates in today, getting legislation through the filibuster, supermajority gauntlet is for the most part impossible.

Democratic efforts to promote and get congressional approval of some form of their voting rights legislation as well as various social and climate issues are frustrating many in the party, particularly those on the left end of the political spectrum.  They are expecting Biden, the Senate and the House to reciprocate for their electoral support last fall.  That’s much easier said than done.

The rules of the Senate in recent years have been changed to get around that challenge. In 2013 Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid amended the rules to allow the confirmation of presidential administrative and judicial nominees (other than for seats on the Supreme Court) by a simple majority vote. In 2017 Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took things a big step further by allowing Supreme Court nominees to be confirmed by a majority vote. That allowed him, of course, to push through Donald Trump’s selection of Neil Gorsuch to the Court after McConnell had stonewalled Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016. The process was repeated with Trump’s other appointees to the high court, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

The dilemma and frustration of Biden and his Democratic colleagues in Congress has led to repeated calls to end the filibuster with a vote of 51 to 50, Vice President Kamala Harris casting the deciding vote.  “No way” say Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema, and perhaps other Democrats who remain silently opposed to ending the filibuster and supermajority requirements.

In a 50-50 Senate such things are bound to happen when the composition of a party’s caucus includes a wide variety of members representing various political points in the broad spectrum of the Democratic Party ranging from Bernie Sanders to Joe Manchin.  No amount of political posturing by Democratic progressives is going to change any of that.  Only a larger Democratic caucus in the Senate with some votes to spare can make that change possible.

Flying right into the face of those basic political facts are parts of the Democratic coalition of voters who thing they are owed something, but who either do not understand or do not accept the world of national politics in 2021.  The Rev. Al Sharpton, for example, said recently that the President must figure out a “workaround in terms of the filibuster… I do not think this president wants history to say that in his presidency, there was the continued weakening of voting rights for people that put him and Vice President Harris in office.”  What, pray tell, would that “workaround” be?

The conclusion from your humble blogger’s point of view is this:  Senate rules should be changed to end the filibuster and supermajority vote requirements for all constitutionally permitted actions of the Senate including all legislation.  But recognize this is July 2021.  It’s not going to happen now.  Get done what can be done with budget reconciliation but stop wasting energy chasing reforms that will not happen at this time.  Look for ways to increase the Democratic Majority caucus in both Houses of the next Congress.

For the traditionalists who hold to the sanctity of filibusters and supermajorities, get over it.  The Senate long ago stopped being the “saucer that cooled the tea” of the House of Representatives.  Many members of the current Senate are formerly House members, used to playing the rough and tumble version of politics practiced in that body.  The Senate has basically morphed into another version of the House, except with statewide constituencies and longer terms.

To get anything done, accept reality and proceed accordingly.

Follow me on Twitter @kenkruly