A mountain of criticism is building about the budget negotiation process, which usually boils down to “three men in a room,” but not this year.

Normally, we reporters spend countless hours this time of year staking out leaders meetings that take place inside Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office. That hasn’t happened since early March.

Instead, the governor has shifted strategies. There he was coming up to the Assembly chamber to announce a two-way deal with Speaker Carl Heastie on ethics reform. Then on Tuesday, he took a walk through the Senate to talk ethics some more with Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Individual leaders have been in and out of his office all week, and there have been numerous private one-on-one phone conversations.

Asked if this was a better way to negotiate the budget, an insider told me bluntly: “Well, no.” But, I suppose US Attorney Preet Bharara’s fun-making, and all the heat about not including Democratic Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the talks may have finally had an impact.

The good news is that it sounds like the budget is much closer to coming to fruition. That is due partly to the end of negotiations-by-fiat by Cuomo. For example, on education, there are discussions about creating what is known as a Berger Commission to come up with a system for evaluations.

Assembly Democrats say Cuomo has backed off his initial insistence that evaluations be based 50 percent on standardized tests. Often in this building, the negotiators like to take ideas for change or reform, wrap them up in a box, cover them with tissue paper then put them in an even bigger box. What they are actually doing is pushing the tough choices down the road to be decided another day.

That way, the budget doesn’t need to be held up, and they can try and reach a deal later in the session. If they can’t, so be it. Much less of a mushroom cloud then would be a late budget. So, why put so many policy ideas into the budget in the first place? Cuomo said as much yesterday. When he doesn’t put things in, he takes heat for not making them a priority. He has to show he cares about them, so they can fall away like bargaining chips the minute they look like they may prevent an on-time budget. On-time budgets poll well, after all. Fighting teachers does not.

“Now people will say, ‘If he doesn’t put it in the budget, he doesn’t really care about it,'” Cuomo said. “That’s what’s happened over the years. And if it’s not in the budget, then he doesn’t mean it. So, the budget has become expansive from that point of view.”

On ethics reform, Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco says the leaders and the governor are close to an agreement on disclosure of clients and outside income. DeFran has been part of a small working group that has been specifically tasked with solving this issue for the Senate. He declined to give details, because they haven’t seen anything in writing, and often what they agree upon orally then looks very different in draft language.

“What we discussed today is a possible solution to the disclosure issue,” the senator said. “We still need something in writing to make sure that what everybody thinks – they are not disagreeing on. It is not a situation that some thought it was that is going to blow up an on time budget. That’s not the situation.”

Again I have’t seen the details, but I’d be willing to bet disclosure ends up looking like “disclosure lite,” with some kind of weird zig-zaggy process for how sensitive information can still be kept hidden from public view. We shall see.

In response to DeFran’s comments, Cuomo spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa told us:

“What’s being reported that Senator DeFrancisco is describing is not disclosure, it is current law. As the Governor has said, he will not enact a budget that doesn’t include an ethics package with real disclosure of legislator’s outside income, and he meant it.”