Shining a Light on New York's Public Authority

By New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli
August 22, 2010

There are more than a thousand public authorities in the state, but most New Yorkers don’t know what they do or how they do it. Despite employing 159,000 people and spending $44 billion annually, New York’s 1,100 state and local public authorities remain largely unknown and unrecognized entities.

As a result, taxpayers have little or no idea what authorities are doing to help us and our communities. They operate in the shadows, spending public money without much public scrutiny.

Since the creation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1921, New York has added 323 state authorities, 771 local authorities and eight interstate or international authorities. Authorities have advanced critical infrastructure projects and provided valuable services, but they have increasingly been used for projects that are beyond their original purpose. They end up functioning as a virtually independent arm of government without any checks or balances.

Because authorities operate outside of the state budget and are not part of the state’s accounting system, New Yorkers rely on the authorities themselves to tell us how much they spend, take in or borrow. Total expenditures by authorities for the latest reported fiscal year totaled a staggering $44 billion – equal to about 84 percent of the state’s General Fund spending. Total public authority revenue was $40.2 billion for the latest reported fiscal year. These are very big numbers. The public has the right to know if any of it’s being wasted, but for the most part, they’re kept in the dark.
In addition, authorities have been increasingly used to incur debt on behalf of the state without voter approval, commonly referred to as "backdoor borrowing."  State and local public authority debt exceeded $214 billion last year, of which over $53 billion is state-funded debt. As of March 2009, over 94 percent of all state-funded debt outstanding was issued by public authorities without voter approval. Something must be done. That’s why I’m using my office to improve oversight and transparency at public authorities.

Enactment of the Public Authorities Accountability Act of 2005 and the Public Authorities Reform Act of 2009 created new reporting, disclosure and accountability requirements. But even with reform, public authorities continue to operate with a tremendous amount of autonomy.  

We’re still pushing hard for more transparency. OpenBookNY.com is a website developed by my office that provides a wealth of information about government spending. And earlier this month, I released a report on public authorities that lays out in detail how pervasive spending by public authorities has become. The report is available on-line at http://www.osc.state.ny.us/pubauth/reports/pub-auth-num.pdf.

More information means more accountability and better government. Taxpayers deserve no less. I’ll keep pushing to put the “public” back in public authorities.


August 19, 2010

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