By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY, NY Debt at the state's shadowy public authorities has reached $243 billion and was racked up with little public input, a report Tuesday from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found.
The state has a remarkable 1,169 authorities that oversee public services, such as the state's transit systems. Started in the 1920s, they operate outside of state government, accumulate debt without voter approval and their revenues are used to plug holes in the state's operating budget, DiNapoli said.
Moreover, the authorities employ 153,502 people, with 12 percent earning more than $100,000 a year compared to 8.3 percent of the state workforce.
"Public authorities are an increasingly influential sphere of government, but they still operate in the shadows with too little accountability to the public," DiNapoli said in a statement.
The state established an Authorities Budget Office in 2009 to oversee the authorities and curb their debt, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has sought to dissolve inactive or inefficient ones.
But DiNapoli's report showed that they still largely operate outside of the public view, and their money is often shifted to pay for state operating expenses.
In the 2011-12 fiscal year, more than $500 million was shifted from authorities to the state budget. In the 2013-14 budget proposed by Cuomo, authorities would be used to expand debt by creating a new bond financing program backed by sales-tax revenues, DiNapoli said.
Taxpayer-funded debt is required to be approved by voters. But authorities have been used to circumvent the law, DiNapoli said.
In 1985, more than 40 percent of state debt outstanding had been approved by the voters. Now less than 6 percent get voters' approval, he said.
"Over the last 20 years, authorities have become the greatest source of taxpayer-funded debt, and it's being done without the usual checks and balances," said former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, D-Greenburgh, Westchester County, a critic of the public authorities.