Cuomo unveils a new budget for a new Democratic era

Andrew Cuomo
Andrew Cuomo
Office of the Governor
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers 2019 State of the State Address.

Cuomo unveils a new budget for a new Democratic era

But in between the lines is the same old governor.
January 15, 2019

Marijuana legalization. Congestion pricing. Clean drinking water. A permanent cap on property taxes and even the staged demolition of the old Tappan Zee Bridge. There was something for anyone to like in the $175 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year unveiled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Ever since his third term began, Cuomo has promised the most progressive agenda in state history, and in some respects his proposed budget lived up to the billing, with proposals to end cash bail, enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution, and increase spending on education and health care. But the nearly two-hour budget address delivered in Albany on Tuesday also served the purpose of positioning Cuomo as the arbiter of what progressive ideas are possible with one-party rule, while simultaneously guarding his political right flank against Republican attacks.

“It’s just us. We are in control. There is no one else,” Cuomo said. “The time for talking is over. It is the time for doing.”

It’s not the first political balancing act that Cuomo has performed. In his first term he positioned himself as the fiscally-conservative, socially liberal, can-do governor. Then there were the days of the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of breakaway Democrats who caucused with the GOP and swung control of the state Senate along with them. With the IDC gone and the Democrats in their strongest position in decades, the Cuomo of 2019 has a new task: proving to skeptics on both the left that he is progressive, while disproving Republicans who say he is just a tax-and-spend liberal who does not care enough about upstate New York.

And like in his inauguration address on Ellis Island, Cuomo wrapped his brand of progressivism into a legislative package with a nod to American ideals. “It’s not just anti-New York. It’s anti-American,” Cuomo said of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. With the federal government shutdown in its 24th day, the speech also gave Cuomo a fresh opportunity to show that New York can accomplish things despite inaction at the federal level.

Some say Cuomo has altered course with the political winds. Cuomo says he is simply set free by one-party rule in Albany. Either way, the speech – which was also billed as this year’s State of the State – highlights that the governor has hardly strayed from his reputation as a transactional deal-maker. He wants to build big things and thinks he knows the best way to do it.

Here are four ways that he got that point across in his budget address.

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Office of the Governor

Cuomo began with his greatest hits

The governor started off his address with a slideshow showing off no less than two dozen state capital projects that are either in the works or have been completed. There were new airports , new train stations, new state parks, even a national comedy center in Lucille Ball’s upstate hometown of Jamestown. Then Cuomo indulged his love of video by showing the several-hundred person audience in “The Egg” convention center the staged demolition of the Tappan Zee Bridge earlier that day. “If that did not go right, talk about blowing a hole in the budget,” Cuomo said. “So we’re off with a bang.”

He spoke of same-sex marriage, the SAFE Act and other high-profile legislation from past years and made sure to mention ongoing plans to bring high-speed broadband to the entirety of upstate New York.

The intent was clear: Cuomo wanted to show that he is paying attention to all parts of New York, and the photos of his appearances at projects across the state highlighted that point. It also gave him an opportunity to show that he has indulged progressives before on issues like same-sex marriage while giving Republicans something as well, including money for upstate projects and continued fiscal discipline. They might not say it out loud, but there was a lot that many upstate and Long Island Republicans could like in Cuomo’s budget.

New York Republicans are losing political oxygen

Hours before Cuomo spoke, a press conference in the state Capitol offered the GOP an opportunity to show that they can still be relevant in the minority despite their heavy losses in the 2018 elections.

The ideas they offered, however, were largely out of the same playbook as before: tax cuts, spending limits and business-friendly policies overall – but with new twists. One was a proposal that all new revenues from legalizing recreational marijuana go to tax cuts. Republicans also vowed to “continue leading the fight to protect New Yorkers against misguided federal tax policies,” which allowed them to favor tax cuts while distancing themselves from the Trump administration.

Yet, at the same time Cuomo has appeared to appropriate some talking points from Republicans, especially on property taxes. “We’re encouraged to hear everyone talking about permanency, now we want to see that done permanently,” said Republican Sen. Joseph Griffo, the acting minority leader. He also hinted that Republicans can live with many of the changes that Cuomo and Democratic lawmakers are pushing, such as the voting reforms that passed the Legislature the day before. All that Republicans could do was complain about process. “We can do all of this in the course of the legislative session,” Griffo said, adding that he viewed Cuomo’s 100-day policy plan as political posturing more than anything.

Cuomo nonetheless cut down on some of the political space for Republicans to say that he is helping the downstate area at the expense of upstate. His budget proposal included the permanent property tax cap, tax cuts and more money for upstate development. Proposals for a $22 million sports complex in Utica, a $750 million laboratory in Albany, and $100 million more for downtown revitalizations will also go a long ways towards dampening Republican lines of attack.

The budget lets Cuomo take a lot of credit for popular ideas

Much of the buzz accompanying the budget announcement had little to do with the dollars and cents necessary to fund state government. Instead, the speech dealt mostly with a litany of policy proposals that would likely pass the Legislature prior to the passage of the budget. A case in point are voting reforms, which lawmakers already passed early this week.

Nonetheless, proposals like implementing early voting were included in the budget speech even though all that remains to be done is for Cuomo to sign the bills.

It appears that there is an unspoken competition between Cuomo and Democrats in the Legislature for who gets the credit for all the bills that Democrats aim to pass. Cuomo has vowed to pass via the budget process all the items in his Justice Agenda that the Legislature does not pass by the April 1 budget deadline. Lawmakers have beaten him to the punch when it comes to voting reforms and new protections for transgender rights, but they only have so much time to pass laws. For left-leaning lawmakers eyeing the next election, this could be seen as the governor co-opting their message now that the political winds are pushing New York in a progressive direction. For voters who want Democrats to do big things, it matters little gets the credit.

Despite his moves to the left, Cuomo might still triangulate

Divided government gave Cuomo many chances to play Democratic and Republican lawmakers off of each other. With Democrats now in control of both houses of the Legislature, the state Senate GOP can no longer serve as a scapegoat for failures to pass Democratic priorities such as the Child Victims Act, the Reproductive Health Act and expansions of tenant protections. In his speech on Tuesday, Cuomo commented on this new dynamic as a positive development despite widespread suspicions that he tacitly supported Republican and IDC control of the state Senate in the past. “There has been a lot bottled up for many years,” he said. “In many ways, I feel the state has now liberated with the new Senate.”

However, the new political dynamic in Albany does not mean that Cuomo is beholden to state lawmakers. The governor enjoys tremendous power over the budget process and that means that while Cuomo’s Justice Agenda is filled with progressive proposals, they will pass in the budget largely on Cuomo’s terms. A good example of this is his proposal to change the governance of the MTA.

He said in his speech, with a hint of irony, that state leaders had “diabolical” intentions when they put control of the state agency in the hands of a board that is partly controlled by the governor, the New York City mayor and counties within the area served by the Long Island Rail Road and the Metro-North Railroad.

“It was purposely designed so that everyone could point fingers at everyone else.” If that structure were to change via the budget process, then Cuomo will have a dominating role in determining who gets more control. Cuomo could always blame state lawmakers for not wanting to do anything about the MTA’s governance if he removes the proposal from the budget in the end due to political pressure.

The same dynamic could play out with other items in the budget like marijuana legalization, rent regulations and congestion pricing. Democrats, or maybe Republicans for that matter, can either go along with Cuomo or be stuck with the blame if he decides to abandon a proposal.

Lawmakers also are feeling the squeeze to support Cuomo’s budget for another reason. Their new pay raises are contingent on passing the budget on time, assuming ongoing litigation does not void that condition. These dynamics place legislators right where Cuomo wants them.

They have to deal with him on his terms if they want to get anything done. In a sense, this means that in effect there are no Republicans or Democrats in the budget process. There are just lawmakers who either side with Cuomo or against him, and Cuomo can play these two sides off each other to get what he wants. From an idealistic standpoint at least, the Cuomo budget is aiming for something higher than merely padding Cuomo’s ego – or so he wants New Yorkers to think.

“I believe we have great ones at the table,” he said towards the conclusion of his speech. “And I believe great ones can actually make this a moment in history.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.
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