February 14, 2018 / 8:58 PM / 5 days ago

New York governor's budget raises transparency concerns -comptroller

NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Parts of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nearly $170 billion proposed budget would raise concerns about transparency by expanding his control over state spending, the state’s chief fiscal watchdog said on Wednesday.

These provisions, which could help the state respond to changes in federal funding and policy by boosting budgetary flexibility, also cause uncertainty about their effect on state agencies, municipalities and nonprofits, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in an analysis.

“At a time of difficult financial challenges, transparency, accountability and oversight in the use of public dollars are more important than ever,” DiNapoli said in a statement.

In January, Cuomo outlined a $168.2 billion budget for fiscal 2019 that switches from an employee-paid tax system to an employer-paid system, potentially easing the increased tax burden that some state residents will feel from the new federal tax overhaul.

He also proposed revenue increases, including deferral of business tax credits, introduction of fees on for-profit health insurers and addition of an excise tax on opioid manufacturers and distributors.

Cuomo would, DiNapoli said, get ”broad grants of unilateral authority ... to manage or reshape the budget,“ ”the “elimination of important checks and balances” and be able to use “budget actions that obscure the level and growth of state revenues, spending and obligations.”

In particular, Cuomo’s budget director could reduce aid to local governments by up to 3 percent to keep the budget balanced if tax receipts fall more than $500 million short of Cuomo’s budget projection. The governor’s office alone establishes those projections.

Other measures would also broaden language that allows the budget director to cut planned spending if certain federal funding to New York is cut by at least $850 million, DiNapoli said.

Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cuomo has said he supports transparency and has made state data available online. In December, he signed a bill that aims to improve public access to official documents.

However, concerns about accountability have clouded his administration, with his former long-time top aide, Joseph Percoco, currently on trial for corruption.

Percoco is accused of taking bribes from contractors in exchange for helping them deal with the state. Cuomo himself has not been implicated in the case. (Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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