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Watchdog Sees Risk of Corruption in NY Budget

(CN) - In its first annual report after the convictions of top state politicians, a government watchdog group found $2.4 billion of "opaque funds" in the New York budget at risk for corruption.

Citizens Union released a report Monday detailing 78 "ambiguous pots" of funding within the Empire State's proposed $145 billion budget for the 2017 fiscal year.

Calling for reform of secret budgeting of taxpayer money, the watchdog group highlighted the recent conviction of former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as an example of the danger of budgets that lack accountability and transparency.

Sheldon was convicted last November of fraud, extortion and money laundering for steering state pot money in exchange for referrals from which he collected millions. A month later, Dean Skelos, the former New York State Senate Majority Leader, was found guilty in a corruption scheme, along with his son.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not include any reform language in this year's proposal. He had previously added such language in amendments to the 2016 budget, but they did not end up in the final bill.

Of the $2.4 billion undesignated lump sums, Cuomo has influence over $2.2 billion, while the Senate controls $815 million and the Assembly oversees $686 million, according to Citizens Union.

"To increase public confidence in our state's spending decisions we must see the legislature and governor enact legislation that requires comprehensive, online disclosure of all lump sums, their recipients, detailed purposes, and elected officials sponsoring the items." said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy for Citizens Union and author of its report.

The watchdog report warns that the public should expect more corruption convictions like Skelos and Sheldon's unless lawmakers pass major reforms targeting discretionary state spending.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, said, "We need a whole new set of rules and level of transparency to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to personally enrich elected officials or used in unseemly pay to play schemes."

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