Article originally posted by “Staten Island Advanced Editorial” on Silive.com
We’ve asked this question in this space before, but it bears repeating: How many public authorities are there in the State of New York?
Sure, you can name the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Power Authority and maybe a couple of less conspicuous ones, such as the state Dormitory Authority or the Thruway Authority. But how many more do you think there are?
According to state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli, there are now
1,169 public authorities in the state. This includes 324 state authorities and their subsidiaries, 837 local authorities, and eight interstate (such as the Port Authority) or international authorities.
That’s no accident.
The comptroller says that all these authorities spent a total of nearly $56 billion last year, including $10 billion in compensation paid to more than
150,000 employees. And 18,000 of those employees — 11.6 percent of the total — made $100,000 a year or more.
What’s more, public authorities account for nearly $250 billion in debt. That’s a quarter of a trillion dollars.
And if state officials have their way, that indebtedness won’t stop growing any time soon.
Public authorities have long been used as a roundabout way of closing state and local budget deficits, but reliance on them is increasing.
For example, in the fiscal year 2011-2012, $376 million was quietly shifted from authorities to the state’s coffers. This includes $211 million in authorized transfers from various authorities and $165 million transferred from the MTA’s Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance fund to the state’s General Debt Service Fund. Debt service (interest on bonds) is typically paid out of the state’s General Fund.
The state relies ever more heavily on authorities to do most of the borrowing on its behalf because the bonds issued by the authorities don’t require voter approval, unlike state-issued bonds. That’s why it’s called “back-door borrowing.”
And now Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2013-2014 executive budget proposes to expand that practice by creating a new bond financing program backed by tax revenues.
More backdoor borrowing will surely ensue.
And remember, not a single member of any authority’s governing body is elected. They are appointed . . . by elected officials, of course.
What’s more, as the comptroller’s report asserts, “Public authorities’ spending and activities — including purchases, personal service expenditures and other transactions — are not subject to the same independent review, oversight and reporting requirements as state agencies.”
It notes that his office has found “numerous examples of deficient contracting practices, poor expenditure controls and inadequate oversight.”
The state’s constellation of public authorities and corporations has rightly been called New York’s “shadow government.” While elected officials huff and puff in public, authorities operate well below the radar of both citizens and, for the most part, the press.
Mr. DiNapoli said, “Public authorities are an increasingly influential sphere of government, but they still operate in the shadows with too little accountability to the public.”
He added, “The Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009 made some progress in improving oversight but more needs to be done to curb the state’s overreliance on public authorities issuing debt without voter approval.”
A decade ago, Mr. DiNapoli’s predecessor, Alan Hevesi, began the crusade to rein in the authorities. Of course, he had to leave office amid scandal.
We’re happy to see that Mr. DiNapoli has taken up that cause. As the report makes clear, reform is needed now more than ever.