New York State

Crossing Andrew Cuomo’s red lines

Democrats have had their strongest hold on the state Legislature in a century, spurring Governor Andrew Cuomo to propose a litany of progressive policies in his state budget plan, including criminal justice reforms, marijuana legalization, easier access to voting, protections for transgender people and expanded abortion rights.

Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Governor Andrew Cuomo. Governor Andrew Cuomo/Flickr

From the beginning of this year, it appeared that New York state was going to have a budget season like no other in recent history. Democrats have their strongest hold on the state Legislature in a century, spurring Gov. Andrew Cuomo to propose a litany of progressive policies in his state budget plan, including criminal justice reforms, marijuana legalization, easier access to voting, protections for transgender people and expanded abortion rights. “We are in control. There is no one else,” Cuomo said in his January budget address. “The time for talking is over. It is the time for doing.”

In the first weeks of the legislative term, lawmakers did pass a series of bills that had been blocked in the Republican-controlled state Senate. But just days after Cuomo released his budget, he nonetheless began drawing his lines in the sand. “I’m not going to pass a budget without ethics reform,” he told reporters on Jan. 18. “I’m not going to allow cherry picking of the budget where we pass just the easy bills and not the hard bills.” By the time mid-March rolled around, the governor had added criminal justice reforms, congestion pricing and a permanent cap on local property taxes to his list of must-haves.

In his first two terms in office, Cuomo largely steered clear of making the on-time passage of the state budget dependent on policy proposals. In fact, a review of speeches, press releases and media accounts, as well as interviews with experts, turned up just one example of Cuomo publicly making such an explicit demand of lawmakers in past years – a 2015 effort to secure ethic reforms in the budget. But this year he has insisted that lawmakers accede to his demands on the tax cap, criminal justice, congestion pricing and ethics as part of a strategy to strong-arm fellow Democrats into making a deal on his terms. With the April 1 budget deadline one week away, an on-time budget could depend as much on lawmakers’ willingness to respect the governor’s red lines as the need to work out the finer details of a $175 billion state spending plan that depends on closing a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall.

The demands are mostly for policies that have fallen short in past years. This includes such criminal justice measures as cash bail, reforming criminal discovery laws and speeding up trials. While the state Legislature passed some ethics reforms earlier this year, the governor still wants public financing for political campaigns in the budget. Cuomo has also warned lawmakers that they must pass congestion pricing or face the consequences of increased fare hikes. More than any other issue this year, Cuomo has doubled down on property taxes – even launching a "No Tax Cap - No Deal!" tour this month. "If the legislature doesn't pass the permanent cap, this hand will never sign the state budget," Cuomo said on March 13.

These red lines in budget negotiations are a new way for the governor to pursue a tried and true negotiating style from his first two terms, according to veteran Democratic political consultant Richard Fife. “The governor has always benefitted from others being fearful of him and how he might react to them not going along with him,” Fife said. “While many love to be loved, you can really get things done if people are fearful of you.”

Adding pressure to lawmakers is the fact that their upcoming pay raises depend on passing the budget on time, a dynamic that Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, a Westchester County Democrat, said amounts to “extortion.” If lawmakers fail to meet the deadline, the governor’s already hefty leverage over the budget process will increase because he can make legislators choose between shutting down the government or passing his budget “extender.”

The Cuomo administration has aimed to build on this leverage by attacking lawmakers’ budget proposals and threatening to miss the state budget deadline. Secretary to the Governor Melissa DeRosa blasted both chambers budget resolutions as coming from “fantasy land” because of a purportedly high proposed spending levels. State Budget Director Robert Mujica took aim at state senators whose budget priorities were making “the reality of an on-time, responsible government budget virtually impossible.” Cuomo meanwhile acts the part of the fiscally disciplined leader while continuing to push for the inclusion of his policy priorities. “Being on time is important,” Cuomo said earlier this month. “Being right is more important.”

This is a notable contrast to Cuomo’s first years as governor when on-time budgets were his way of reasserting order in state government, starting in 2011 with the first on-time state budget since 2006. In order to make a deal, Cuomo gave up on his calls for passing a property tax cap and rent regulations in the budget, saying at the time that he had to be a “realist.” The subsequent years followed a similar pattern of pragmatic budget making, with the governor emphasizing fiscal discipline rather than warning that the removal of specific policy proposals would hold everything up. In 2013, Cuomo handed out hockey pucks to commemorate the “hat trick” of three straight on-time budget. The next year, he used baseballs to celebrate a “grand slam” victory – which came partly at the cost of passing the Dream Act, a 10-point Women’s Agenda with expanded abortion protections and public financing for elections beyond a pilot program.

In 2015, though, he demanded that ethics reforms be included in the state budget following the arrest of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. “I will not sign a budget that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal,” Cuomo said at the time. “This, in all probability, means we will not have a fifth, on-time, amicable budget.” In the end, the budget was passed a few hours after the deadline, but making it happen required significant concessions from the governor. His ethics package had to be watered down and the governor was left trying to downplay the seriousness of his own proposals. “The conventional wisdom now is, if it’s not mentioned in the budget, you really don’t care about it,” he said at the time. “So it’s become a laundry list in some ways.”

With the exception of 2017, when the budget was finalized over a week late, Cuomo continued to pass budgets on time – burnishing his image as the pragmatic politician by prioritizing fiscal restraint over passage of progressive policy proposals. But 2019 is different. While Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins have said they are still pushing to meet the April 1 deadline, Cuomo has demurred. “I would never commit to doing a budget on time,” he said at a news conference in the Capitol on March 20.

It is nothing new for a governor or any other elected leader to make big demands in budget season. Gov. David Paterson drew a line of his own in 2011 over deficit financing. But no governor has made as many – or as explicitly – as Cuomo has this session, and there is a possibility that his strategy could work. Recent reports suggest that deals are close to happening on congestion pricing and criminal justice reforms. It remains to be seen whether the same will happen with public financing of elections.

At the very least, voters may not look at Cuomo too harshly if he falls short of getting everything he wants on the property tax cap, according to Larry Levy, executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. As long as Cuomo doesn’t let the cap lapse, the suburban voters who are so important to Democrats future electoral prospects are unlikely to care. “To the typical overtaxed homeowner in the state, whether it’s permanent or three years isn’t going to make a big difference,” Levy said. “Maybe in Albany where egos are often measured in being able to get your way, it might make a difference.”