What's In Store For Governor Cuomo

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show,  Celeste Katz, writer for the Daily Politics blog at the New York Daily News; Errol Louis, host of NY1's Inside City Hall; Stephen Madarasz, director of communication at the Civil Service Employees Association Local 1000; Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino; and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. reacted to Governor Cuomo's inauguration speech and discussed what's ahead for the governor in 2011.

Reports surfaced over the weekend that Cuomo would suggest a one-year wage freeze for all state employees. The measure would be part of an emergency economic plan that the new governor will unveil this week. Such a provision would be unpopular with state employee unions for obvious reasons, and would further stymie a constituency that already faced 900 layoffs on New Year's Eve. Union communications chief Stephen Madarasz said that the prospect of a wage freeze is troubling, but as long as it's not official policy, there's time for employees to negotiate a better arrangement.

I would immediately challenge the characterization of the plan for a wage freeze, because there is no formal proposal out there, just vague political rhetoric. There's a very different dynamic between going to the bargaining table and negotiating in good faith, and some type of edict that might not actually be legal...Certainly what we're seeing them saying in The New York Times today suggests that they recognize it's an issue for negotiation. 

When asked if the hits taken by state employees could be part of an economic strategy favoring private sector job growth, Errol Louis said that one won't necessarily lead to the other. Freezing wages and firing workers symbolizes a commitment to efficient government more than deference to the private sector.

The relatively small amount of money that will be saved by layoffs won't be automatically transferred into some brilliant job creation strategy that's going to make private sector jobs flourish. If you listen to the speech closely, Cuomo was pretty clear about needing to send a symbol to those people, particularly families, that are being taxed out of the state. They need to feel that government is being more efficient, that money isn't being wasted, and that there's a reason to stay here and hand over those property taxes.

And there's the rub. Cuomo will need to strike a balance between overburdening middle- and high-income taxpayers and hurting public employees. Celeste Katz said that convincing anyone to make the necessary sacrifices—and not to leave the state—is going to be a huge hurdle for the governor.

You're talking about freezing salaries, capping state spending, these changes in worker status. I think Cuomo's saying, we've got to rip this thing up and start over again. A lot of municipalities are going to be looking at this and saying, "What's for me?"...Everybody wants the state to do well, but not at their expense. 

There's potential for a real philosophical battle here. Cuomo has pledged not to raise taxes for anyone, and to let a tax on high-income earners sunset at the end of 2011. But while low-income families struggle with high unemployment and are disproportionately affected by cuts to government services, some have questioned whether not raising taxes unfairly insulates wealthier New Yorkers from the budget pain. Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino said that increasing taxes on high-income earners should stay off the table, as it would only exacerbate a social and fiscal gap that's been growing for far too long.

If you look at the census figures, people are leaving in droves, businesses are leaving, property taxpayers are leaving, and they're leaving because they've been shouldering the burden for a very long time. We're a very generous people in New York state. We provide for those who truly need it, nobody's saying not to. But I think what we're talking about now is whether or not we can continue to afford it at these levels...At some point too many people are leaving and the ones staying need service. That's a big imbalance.

For his part, Bronx President Ruben Diaz would appreciate a more nuanced approach to the state's economic woes. Cuomo has talked a lot about the money he won't spend, but not so much about the money he will. While Diaz appreciates the need to control costs, he said that the focus should be on better ways to use government dollars. Cuomo may have hinted at a change during his inaugural address.

He used the word investment. That's what we need in the borough. We need to invest in our infrastructure, and these are the type of discussions that we want to have with Andrew, because much is being said about the economic crisis, and the need to cut spending in government, but I think we should have an approach where we invest wisely...On the one hand, while spending has to be cut, there has to be some type of investment in businesses, education, and higher education so that New Yorkers are prepared to grow the economy.