The Tool Mr. Cuomo Needs

Say this about Governor Cuomo: He is not one to dampen expectations. Having delivered tax reform, gay marriage and new union contracts during his first year in office, the governor is looking for even bigger achievements in his second year—which happens to coincide with state legislative elections. Albany’s traditional embrace of the status quo is never tighter than when legislators are up for re-election, which makes the governor’s ambitions even more notable.

Perhaps the most sweeping reform on Mr. Cuomo’s 2012 agenda is nothing less than a systematic reconfiguration of the state’s sprawling bureaucracy. The governor has invoked the spirit of one of his most celebrated predecessors, Alfred E. Smith, who modernized state government in the 1920s with a series of administrative reforms that made Albany more accountable, efficient—and humane. (Yes, it’s possible to be all three.) Many historians believe that Smith’s administrative reorganization of Albany was his greatest achievement.

Nearly a century later, Albany is in desperate need of another retooling. That seems to be just what Mr. Cuomo had in mind last year when he formed a Spending and Government Efficiency Commission, which has been dubbed SAGE. Let’s hope the commissioners live up to the acronym.

The commissioners are expected to recommend consolidations and other changes to make state agencies more efficient. Does every state agency need its own public information office? Is there a way to centralize some agency operations to avoid duplication? Implementing these kinds of systemic changes will require an extraordinary degree of flexibility in operational funds.

Here’s the rub: The state will (with any luck) pass a new budget by April 1. Ordinarily, the budget would lock in the spending plans for each agency for the remainder of the fiscal year. But Mr. Cuomo has proposed language in this year’s budget that would give him the power to shift operational money from agency to agency on his own, without the Legislature’s approval.

That has some legislators and Albany observers worried. Several have argued that the Legislature should not simply give Mr. Cuomo the power to unilaterally change a document—the budget—which was agreed upon after negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders.

The concern is understandable, but unnecessary. Mr. Cuomo’s office points out that the language in the budget applies only to operational money. In other words, the governor could not simply cut state-funded programs. He simply wants the authority to shift operational money so that consolidation and other efficiencies can be implemented this year, rather than having to wait until the fiscal year beginning on April 1, 2013.

Mr. Cuomo has earned the right to be trusted with this extraordinary authority. These are, after all, extraordinary times, but the governor has managed to take on a host of difficult issues without the nasty confrontations that have marred state capitals from Trenton to Madison, Wis. He has earned the trust of taxpayers and his colleagues in the Legislature.

When the SAGE recommendations are released, Mr. Cuomo should have the ability to implement the changes without having to negotiate each change with the Legislature. Remember, these will be operational, not programmatic, reforms. They apply to the administration of programs, not to the programs themselves.

State government desperately needs a housecleaning. Mr. Cuomo made administrative reform one of his top campaign promises in 2010. This is not a particularly sexy issue—few hearts beat faster when they hear the words “administrative reform”—but it is absolutely vital for the state’s fiscal health.

There is no cause for alarm. There is no executive overreach in Albany.