Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
At what point does something become ritual? In reporting we have this maxim that tells us when something has moved on from random to rote: one, two, trend.
But in Albany, at least, doing something twice can feel like a quantum leap into the new inevitable. That’s the way legislative leaders and Andrew Cuomo sounded on Friday, having reached the end of their second—in a row!—balanced, on-time (early even!!) budget in as many years.
“This state government has come a very long way in a very short time,” said Cuomo, flanked by his lieutenant, Bob Duffy, and his counterparts in the legislature, Speaker Shelly Silver and Majority Leader Dean Skelos. “For many, many years this government truly disappointed the people of this state."
“We're very proud of the way that government is functioning in Albany,” Skelos said.
And how could they not be? Out of the pit of chaos New York’s state government has been pulled, turned into a cooperative, smoothly-running political and legislative paradise. The one who gets to take the credit? Andrew Cuomo.
And that’s exactly how it was planned.
“In some ways today is the epitome of everything we've been working towards for a long time,” Cuomo said during the pre-budget signing presser on Friday.
Indeed, where Albany has arrived with the passage of this year’s budget is the vision laid out by then-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo back in May 2010. Most candidates running for office present their plan for the office they’re running for. But to important pieces made Cuomo’s plan different. One, it wasn’t a plan out of the nebulous campaign ether, but in some ways the next steps from his time as attorney general. Two, any plan is worthless without the ability to execute, and Andrew Cuomo—Democratic family scion who was nursed at the teat of Albany politics—intended to deploy his agenda items using all the immense political skill amassed over the years.
Transformational Leadership By Design
“He very much has an ability to both take a long term, macro look at things and is also masterful on the actual details,” said political consultant Jennifer Cunningham, who ran Cuomo’s attorney general campaign and was instrumental in the early days of his time as governor. “I think he is capable of looking at New York State from the perspective of a policy person."
Jumping back to his days in the attorney general’s office, those around Cuomo say the foundation for what was to come—his variety of transformational political leadership—was evident early on.
“The interesting thing about the AG’s office and his preparation for that was that it required that he not only look at mastering the very wide jurisdiction that that office has, but he was also out in the fray of the campaign and getting questions about everything that goes on with government,” Cunningham said.
That transformational drive has taken a few different guises.
For example, look at the building blocks that went into the pension reform push. There’s an undeniable thread that stretches from Cuomo’s initiative, as attorney general, to make it easier for local governments to consolidate, removing the multitude of overlapping towns, townships, water districts and what have you throughout the state. While actually getting municipalities to consolidate hasn’t proven tremendously successful, the genesis of the plan—to help those living under the compounded tax burden these layers of government imposed—can be seen driving the property tax cap initiative in the Governor’s first terms.
The tax cap then begets the need for mandate relief—localities now need help reigning in their costs—and the case for pension reform is born. Viola: a thick slice of the lifecycle of a Cuomo master plan.
Even the whole on-time, minimal-to-no growth budget can be traced back to the AG’s office, says former Cuomo chief of staff Steve Cohen.
“When we were in the AG’s office and we first encountered having to do the budget in a period of fiscal austerity, the AG’s office—like every other governmental agency—was asked to submit a what was called a ‘flat budget’, flat year-to-year,” Cohen said. “We did that. And our understanding was that flat meant, just like in your own household budget, flat; whatever the number was last year, same number this year.
“And we were told at the time, no, that’s not a flat budget because you’ve got to build your base budget, and that has to take into account various increases that are going to have to realize in the coming fiscal year—rent increases, built in pay raises, whatever they were.”
Then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo was having none of it.
“The then AG was adamant about this. His phrase to me was, ‘No, flat means flat,’” Cohen said.
We can see that same commitment to de-Orwell-ing the budget process in the past two years: built-in increases were eradicated from his first budget, and promises to cap spending increases appear to be kept in his second.
Divide and Conquer
None of this would have been possible without a plan of attack. One of Cuomo’s great gifts as a politician is his ability to reframe and reorder things to best serve his agenda. We saw that late last year with the tax restructuring that saw higher income earners paying a higher rate.
What we were also watching was the beginning of this year’s budget negotiations. As it stood, Cuomo and the legislature had already broken tradition by implementing a two-year budget plan. This year’s budget was more than 70 percent agreed upon last year.
But to get everything he sought, in a way that didn’t gum up the works, Cuomo broke the budget process into three chunks. First there was the revenue side—that came in the form of the tax restructuring last year.
Second was the policy agenda items—pension reform, teacher evaluations, and the thorny issue of redistricting. That got handled last month.
Last was the spending side, which has been coming together over the past few weeks. All three of these pieces could have been debated and negotiated at once. But by breaking them up, the horse trading and leveraging for one over the other largely disappeared.
Instead, Cuomo handed out pieces everyone could be happy with—he gets compromised version of pension reform, which Assembly Democrats can live with after essentially enacting a “millionaire’s tax” last year, Senate Republicans get their redistricting maps passed, and no one had to go nuclear on spending line items to get what they wanted.
Doing Good, Reasons Aside
The Governor’s people point to all of this as doing the right thing. But it also works heavily in Cuomo’s favor. There’s no end to the speculation that Cuomo wants to be President of the United State at the end of 2016. Effective bipartisanship, the 180-degree turnaround of New York State’s government, the social progressivism mixed with fiscal discipline could look like the playbook for someone eager to win over those oft-mentioned, elusive moderate swing voters we always hear about.
Some things appear to back this up. An Albany-based political consultant pointed to last year’s budget and a line in the bill that created the new Mandate Relief Council. The council’s job is to look for ways to help relieve the fiscal burden imposed by Albany on local governments—think the Medicaid co-pay local governments share with the state, something almost heard of elsewhere.
It’s reasonable to think having folks looking into this for a while might be a good thing, right?
This act shall take effect immediately…and shall expire January 1, 2015 or upon the departure from office of the fifty-sixth governor whichever comes first.
The fifty-sixth governor, of course, is Andrew Cuomo.
“I’ve been reading bills for a long time, and I’ve never seen anything put into law that would cease if an individual left office,” said the consultant via email. “Very odd.”
When asked why the council was tied to Cuomo’s term in office, Cuomo spokesperson Josh Vlasto said in an email response, “So the next gov can appoint a new council.”
Is it an example of craven political calculation to take all the credit for effective governance, or simply a favor so the next guy or gal doesn’t have to be bothered with the ideas from the previous guy’s term?
A better question may be, who cares?
Look at Cuomo’s sky-high ratings with the public. Look at a state government that, as the Governor mentions often, was the punch line of late-night talk show host monologues. Look at the on-time budget—again. It’s certainly the argument of his supporters that making government work can be—and maybe should be—good for both New York and Andrew Cuomo, should he have future political plans.
The cynic says, ‘He did it because it was good for him politically,’” Steve Cohen said, talking about this year’s budget. “The citizen of the state says, whether it’s good for him politically or not, I live in this state and it’s about time somebody did something that was good for the state. And that gets reflected in his approval ratings—and it should, because that is called good government.”