How Trump is thwarting Cuomo’s agenda

Governor Cuomo at a press conference on Medicaid on Feb. 24.
Governor Cuomo at a press conference on Medicaid on Feb. 24.
Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Cuomo at a press conference on Medicaid on Feb. 24.

How Trump is thwarting Cuomo’s agenda

The governor faces federal opposition on a variety of policy fronts.
February 24, 2020

President Donald Trump has made no secret of how he is willing to use federal power against his political enemies, both foreign and domestic. In New York, the Trump administration has taken steps to halt the Gateway Tunnel, hammer high-income New Yorkers on income taxes, and block the use of programs that ease travel across international borders. 

Now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is claiming that political retribution by the Trump administration is going to cost the state billions of dollars in health care spending in coming years. 

The details of a state $8 billion request for a federal Medicaid waiver are complicated. The Cuomo administration learned on Friday that it would not be granted a federal waiver to spend more than $600 million in federal Medicaid funding beyond a March 31 deadline, nor would it get the billions more it wants in the upcoming years to reduce low-income residents’ reliance on hospitals for medical treatments. 

Cuomo claims that the Trump administration is playing favorites with health care funding for millions of people by rejecting New York’s application for a waiver, even though it approved one made by Texas in 2017. “They have no limits,” Cuomo said during a press conference on Monday. “It’s all politics.” 

Cuomo added that there is little that he can do to stop Trump beyond lamenting that politics should not affect federal decision-making on issues like health care, immigration and infrastructure. “I have righteousness,” the governor said. “But (I have) no leverage.” That much appeared certain following a recent White House meeting in which the governor tried in vain to get Trump to change his mind on freezing applications for the Trusted Traveler Programs.

The latest moves by the Trump adminstration suggest that a variety of state initiatives now depend on whether Trump will be reelected later this year, considering his administration’s moves.

Here is a rundown of where Trump is using his leverage against the Cuomo administration.

Health care

The state Department of Health announced late last year that it was seeking $8 billion worth of federal support for Medicaid. A similar waiver granted by the Obama administration in 2014 allowed the state to redirect billions in federal funding to efforts aimed at reducing New Yorkers’ reliance on hospitals as a primary source for care. More than $600 million of that funding is left unspent, but the Cuomo administration would need another federal waiver to use it after March 31. Such a waiver would have also made billions more available to continue such efforts for another four years. The Trump administration has said it does not want to grant so-called Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment waivers moving forward, though it did grant one to Texas in 2017. 

Drivers’ licenses

A state law passed last year allows undocumented immigrants to obtain drivers’ licenses under the understanding that their personal information would never be shared with federal immigration officials. However, the Trump administration earlier this month froze New Yorkers’ applications for Trusted Traveler Programs, which allow people to cross the border with minimal security checks, and made no secret of its demand that the state allow federal officials to access the state database of drivers’ licenses before it would end the freeze. Administration officials have cited public safety concerns as well, which Cuomo has said he is willing to accommodate to some degree.

Cuomo first offered to do this on a case-by-case basis and now says he is willing to let the federal government access the database to check the security risks of Trusted Traveler applicants – without their social security numbers – so long as they were not used by immigration officials. But Matthew Albence, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's acting director, rejected those proposals at a press conference in Troy last week. "In fact, short of taking our guns away, I can think of no law that would be more dangerous to our officers and our agents,” he told reporters of the new law allowing the undocumented to get driver’s licenses.

Congestion pricing

A key part of efforts to revitalize public transportation in the downstate area is through a congestion pricing plan that would charge drivers to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, however, needs a waiver from the Federal Highway Administration in order to implement the plan by its 2021 deadline. While similar requests for federal approval have been routine in past years, Politico and The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the Trump administration has taken no action on the matter in recent months. While MTA Chairman Patrick Foye remains optimistic that approval will come sometime this year, worries have only increased that it will never happen so long as Trump is president. 

Disaster relief

Upstate New York has been hit hard by flooding in recent months, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has not given the help that state leaders say is needed for recovery efforts. Central New York residents suffered millions of dollars in damage due to an Oct. 31 storm, which the agency said in its rejection was not serious enough to warrant individual aid. The Cuomo administration appealed the decision, but there is no sign that the federal government will reverse the decision it made in early January. 

Renewable energy

Cuomo has promoted off-shore wind development as a key part of state efforts against climate change, but any efforts to install the new technology face a variety of regulatory hurdles from the federal government. The Trump administration’s withholding of approval of the first utility-scale off-shore wind project in the nation – which is off the coast of Rhode Island – suggests that New York may face rejection when it movse forward with its own efforts to generate electricity off the coast of Long Island. Only time will tell whether that will be the case, but Trump’s long-running objections to wind power in general hardly give Cuomo a reason to be optimistic. 

Infrastructure

After entering office, Trump upended a deal reached by New York, New Jersey and the Obama administration to fund the construction of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. While the proposed project has been called one of the most vital to the national economy, considering New York City’s role in it, it remains very much up in the air whether Trump is willing to cooperate with efforts to get the project moving. Beyond funding, the two states also need federal approval – and that is far from certain considering Trump’s wavering on the issue. In recent weeks, the federal government approved funding for a bridge, but not a tunnel, and the future of the tunnel project remains in question. 

Similar problems have afflicted Cuomo’s efforts to extend the Second Avenue Subway – despite Trump’s stated interest in helping – and build an airtrain to LaGuardia Airport. "Will they hold approval on congestion pricing hostage? Yes. Will they hold the air train approval at LaGuardia Airport hostage? Yes. Will they hold the Gateway Tunnels hostage? Yes. Because that is how they do business," Cuomo said last week.

Income taxes

A 2017 federal tax law championed by Trump and other Republican leaders effectively raises income taxes on some New Yorkers because it capped how much they could deduct state and local taxes at $10,000. Cuomo has made the issue one of his top priorities in dealing with the Trump administration. However, there are no signs that Trump is willing to reconsider the issue despite his discussions with Cuomo on the topic. 

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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