The drama of waiting for Cuomo

State lawmakers have been waiting for Cuomo to finalize a budget.
State lawmakers have been waiting for Cuomo to finalize a budget.
Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
State lawmakers have been waiting for Cuomo to finalize a budget.

The drama of waiting for Cuomo

The storyline of fixing the state’s budget deficit remains as unresolved as ever.
September 8, 2020

State leaders have known for months that they face roughly a $14.5 billion budget hole in the current fiscal year that began in April, but there was always hope that billions in new federal aid would somehow appear at the end of all the drama.

“We’re a little bit like the performers in the play, ‘Waiting for Godot,’” state Senate Finance Committee Chair Liz Krueger told “The Capitol Pressroom” on Friday. But unlike the Samuel Beckett play of that name, there are very real consequences to waiting in vain. The state has already withheld billions of dollars in aid for local governments, public schools and social services.

Krueger is among a growing list of state lawmakers saying the time has come for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to get behind efforts to raise new revenue through taxes on stock transfers, luxury second homes or higher-income residents. That could happen in the upcoming weeks as legislative leaders get ready to reconvene another virtual session. Or, it could not happen at all. At this point, however, they are all waiting for Cuomo to decide how the fiscal drama will proceed.

The governor told reporters on Tuesday that he was not budging from his position that such proposals risk incentivizing the wealthy, who provide a disproportionately high chunk of state revenues, to leave the state. “I’m not giving up on the federal government funding,” he told reporters at a press conference in Manhattan. He added that a Democratic takeover of the White House or the U.S. Senate after the November election could mean the aid comes through early next year.

Holding the line on taxes is well in line with Cuomo’s longtime posture as a fiscally disciplined centrist. But implementing 20% state budget cuts also risks many of the social programs that have been part of his self-proclaimed brand of political progressivism.

However, the governor has supported some proposals for higher taxes on the wealthy in recent years, so there is always the possibility that he could back some revenue increases given the right conditions. He is not up for reelection anytime soon, for example, while the upcoming November general election adds pressure on legislative leaders to strike a deal that would have a wide appeal to the electorate, especially in suburban swing districts where taxes are an important issue.

Both Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins appear ready to make a deal. “The only way we can move forward is with a three-way agreement,” Krueger told “The Capitol Pressroom.” If the governor refuses to have those discussions, then he could be left with the blame for all the damage the cuts inflict to government services, which could hurt Cuomo further down the political road – if he runs for a fourth term as governor in 2022, with an eye on protecting himself from another progressive primary challenger.

Budgetary powers approved by the state Legislature in early March allowed the governor to enact budget cuts, though state lawmakers have 10 days to respond before they become official. A three-way agreement though would end the fiscal suspense in a way that distributes the political heat among the governor, Assembly and state Senate. Some cuts would likely go through while more politically popular programs like public schools could remain relatively unscathed.

The ongoing uncertainties of the pandemic mean the fiscal drama would hardly end there. “If you think you have a problem this year, it is nothing like the problem you have next year,” Cuomo said of the multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall for the fiscal year that starts in April 2021. But with just months to go before budget negotiations begin anew in January, state lawmakers are increasingly eager for a resolution to the ongoing fiscal suspense. And like the protagonists in Beckett’s play, they are still waiting for someone who might never come around.

Zach Williams
is senior state politics reporter at City & State.