University at Albany
 

THE BIG CHALLENGE
Q & A with Mary Beth Labate, MPA ’86
New York State Budget Director

Mary Beth Labate was named New York State budget director by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on January 11, 2015. She is the first Rockefeller College alumnus to be appointed to this important position in state government. Since 2012, she has served as first deputy budget director for the Division of Budget and previously has held leadership positions with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and Division of Homes and Community Renewal. She received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Notre Dame and Master of Public Administration from Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, University at Albany.

What are the fiscal and financial management challenges facing government today?

Mary Beth: The big challenge facing all levels of government is constraining spending growth so that we're living within our means. Governor Cuomo put his finger on this issue in our first meeting with him after his election and, for a budget professional such as myself, this was a very refreshing and welcome acknowledgment. New York had gotten itself in trouble by allowing spending to grow at a faster rate than inflation or statewide personal income. That pattern leads to a series of bleak choices, such as raising taxes or resorting to fiscal gimmicks. But when governments do the hard work to control spending — and it is hard work — they can find themselves in a surplus position and then the challenge becomes an opportunity. Through spending restraint, governments can provide tax cuts, as Governor Cuomo has done, and make new investments that otherwise wouldn't have been possible.

What should graduate schools of public affairs and public administration be doing in the areas of teaching, research and service to address the challenges?

Mary Beth: Nothing beats experiential learning, so schools like Rockefeller who can link students with real-world public service opportunities are at an advantage. Schools need to challenge students to absorb the plethora of data that is out there and use it to determine which programs and policies work and which don't. A data-based argument is always better received. I also think it's important to be honest with students — government is complex and sometimes arcane, and it helps to know some of that going in. Of course, working in government can also be incredibly rewarding.

As far as specific skills, when I was at Rockefeller we were taught to write a really tight two-page memo. I still value that skill, but in 2015 being able to express complicated thoughts succinctly and effectively through PowerPoint has become equally important.

How did your experiences at Rockefeller prepare you for your current position?

Mary Beth: Were it not for Rockefeller, I probably wouldn't be budget director. Many years ago, the Governor's Office of Management and Productivity contacted the school looking for a promising young intern, and that was my entry into public service. Rockefeller has always nurtured mutually beneficial relationships with government. This dynamic worked out great for me personally way back when, and because Rockefeller is still putting talented people into public service with the state, it continues to help me as budget director.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 Rockefeller College News Magazine.