Many in New York, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, hope that President Joe Biden’s administration will usher in a new era of support for the state, with a friendly White House willing to provide local aid and back crucial infrastructure projects like a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River.
But that doesn’t mean that Cuomo is letting up his pressure on the federal government to deliver. On Tuesday, a day before Biden’s inauguration, the governor was already giving the incoming administration an ultimatum: provide all $15 billion he’s requesting, or the state’s going to sue. “If Washington doesn't provide to New York state, without fair share funding we're going to pursue litigation,” Cuomo said on Tuesday.
Although that’s an aggressive way to welcome the new administration of his own Democratic Party, it’s viewed by political observers and lawmakers as a tactical move unlikely to sour a positive relationship with the new administration. But Democratic state senators say Cuomo should instead engage with lawmakers on taxing the wealthy, on the assumption that New York won’t get enough money from Washington to fully close its budget gap.
Cuomo has a personal friendship with Biden – when speculation abounded over Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, the governor said he would only run specifically if Biden did not. Many political observers thought Cuomo could have been called on to serve in the Biden administration, and the president reportedly considered him for attorney general. So New York political observers are not concerned that the governor has alienated the new president. “I don't see this as a sign of any sort of divide in their relationship or anything more than what could be arguably a smart tactical maneuver to get to the head of the line,” Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said. Levy suggested too that it makes sense to maintain his criticism of and pressure on the federal government that characterized his last year of press conferences despite the change in party control. “He could be accused of partisan hypocrisy, if he did not continue to be tough on the federal government until it delivered,” Levy said.
Cuomo did not seem to bear any ill will towards Biden, nor mention the previous day’s ultimatum, on Wednesday when he congratulated Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on their inaugurations. “I’m very excited about the president and the change for this nation,” Cuomo said at a press conference. “Joe Biden, I believe, is the right person for this time.” He went on to call Biden a “great friend to New York state.” He praised the president for including $350 billion for state and local aid in his coronavirus stimulus proposal.
But Cuomo’s rhetoric on Tuesday did not sit well with some state lawmakers. State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi from the Bronx called the governor’s move “disappointing,” saying that she would rather see Cuomo work with the state Legislature to pass responsible revenue raisers to avoid deep spending cuts in the pandemic-fueled budget crunch. “I think that now that President Trump is no longer available as this scapegoat or boogeyman, he's now turning to President Biden,” Biaggi said. “Which is confusing because he wasn't even sworn in yet and hadn't even taken any actions officially.” She noted that Biden has given every indication that he will work to provide for New York and other states harmed by the pandemic and the recession it has triggered. But Biaggi added that the state should not expect the federal government to cover the entirety of the budget gap, like Cuomo is demanding.
State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Democrat from Queens, said there’s nothing wrong with continuing to hold the new administration’s feet to the fire to make sure it delivers for New York. “I hope we get as much as we can out of Washington, we certainly deserve it,” Gianaris said, adding that he’s not “terribly concerned” that Cuomo’s rhetoric will cause a rift with the Biden administration. But he said what he called “bluster” from Cuomo regarding the ultimatum is simply another way to “shift the blame around.” The governor has for months spoken about deep cuts he would be forced to make without federal aid, but he has resisted calls from lawmakers to raise taxes on the wealthy, a prospect supported by leaders in both chambers. Cuomo’s proposed budget does include a temporary tax hike on the state’s top earners, but only if the federal government doesn’t deliver, which many progressives deem insufficient.
State Sen. Gustavo Rivera from the Bronx said he let out a long sigh when he heard Cuomo threaten the lawsuit. “It is correct that we need to continue to demand that the federal government do what it has not done yet and fulfill its responsibilities to the state of New York,” Rivera said. “I got no beef with him on that one.” But he said that Cuomo’s threat to the federal government was simply a way to “change the subject” away from engaging with the state Legislature on passing new taxes on wealthy New Yorkers. “There's more than enough in those proposals to not only address the budget deficits that we have right now, but get us resources to actually invest in a real way,” Rivera said. Right now, 14 different proposals to tax the rich in various ways have been introduced to the Legislature.
In a call with reporters after the budget address, Cuomo’s budget director Robert Mujica said the governor actually was not threatening to sue the federal government over a potential failure to provide $15 billion. Mujica said Cuomo was referring to making a decision about continuing a lawsuit against the federal government over the $10,000 cap on state and local tax – or SALT – deductions passed as part of President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul. A federal judge threw out the 2019 lawsuit over the cap, which the state appealed later in the year. A federal appeals court reportedly seemed skeptical of overturning the cap in December.
Cuomo senior advisor Rich Azzopardi also brushed off criticism from state lawmakers over Cuomo’s rhetoric, while reiterating that the threatened litigation was actually about the ongoing lawsuit over the SALT cap. “We need to be made whole and these politicians are entitled to their opinions as wrongheaded and silly as they might be,” Azzopardi said in a text.
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