Quinn Tightens City Council’s Funding Process

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City Council members who once cozied up to the speaker for support on funding proposals must now look to each other for help.

New rules imposed by the Speaker Christine Quinn have put strict limits on the number of funding projects lawmakers can request in this year’s budget. Instead of appealing directly to the speaker, council members are now required to explain their requests in writing and to secure the signatures of at least nine colleagues from at least three of the five boroughs. Lawmakers are limited to sponsoring four requests and signing on to seven others.

The changes are intended to correct a funding process that some say has gotten out of control in recent years. With no limits on requests, lawmakers each year have asked for hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for city agencies under their oversight or pet projects in their districts. Council members would then make their case for each proposal in meetings with the speaker and the council’s finance staff, leading to the perception of favoritism when the list of funded projects was eventually whittled down.

Council members have until a week from today to submit their requests under the deadline created when the rules were announced last month. The signature requirement has led to a frenzied lobbying effort for lawmakers trying to convince their colleagues to lend their names to proposals ranging from a Hepatitis B testing and treatment program in Queens to funding for more inspectors at the Department of Buildings.

Some lawmakers are praising the changes for leveling the playing field within the council and adding more scrutiny to the budget process, but others say they are doing more harm than good – and loading their staffs with paperwork. The new restrictions make the battle for support overly competitive, they say, leading to a rush for signatures that amounts to little more than political horse-trading. “What members end up doing is saying, ‘You support mine, and I’ll support yours,'” a council member of Queens, Anthony Avella, said. “Maybe you’ll end up signing on to a program that you wouldn’t ordinarily support.”

A council member of Brooklyn who often dissents from his colleagues, Charles Barron, said the new policy is divisive. “It puts us at odds,” he said. “It’s overly competitive, and I think there’s a better way to do this.”

To Ms. Quinn, however, such choices are inevitable. “The reality of the budget process is that it is about competition. It’s about choices,” the speaker said.

Ms. Quinn participated in the request process for seven years before her election as speaker in January. She said that in the past, the funding system may not have been out of control, but there was a sense that it lacked clarity. “This is an attempt on my part to put more order into the budget process,” Ms. Quinn said.

The speaker acknowledged concern among some members and said she would evaluate the policy and consider suggested changes after the budget was complete.

Some lawmakers praised the rules as giving more responsibility to members, because they must sign off on proposals before they reach the speaker’s desk. “This is a credit to Christine Quinn because this process puts more control in the members’ hands, and less in the speaker’s hands,” Council Member John Liu of Queens said.

A council member of Brooklyn, Letitia James, called the new system “a great equalizer,” because lawmakers close to the speaker would no longer have such a large advantage in funding priorities. In making her requests in previous years, Ms. James said, she “sent a letter to the speaker and prayed.”

The Republican leader in the council, James Oddo of Staten Island, said the changes “inject some sanity” into the process. “You had council members coming in there with a laundry list on toilet paper,” he said.

The new rules also drew kudos from the watchdog Citizens Union, which has long pushed for more transparency and accountability in council practices. “It rolls back the curtain that has shrouded these decisions,” the group’s executive director, Richard Dadey, said.


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