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Cuomo's Albany

Friday, January 07, 2011

WNYC
A slide from Andrew Cuomo's 2011 State of the State address depicting the budget process as three battleships captained by Cuomo, Skelos and Silver, and an air strike of special interests (wnyc)

When Andrew Cuomo arrived in Albany, he threw open the doors to the governor's mansion and invited everyone in. Among the first to arrive was Martha Yourth, a retired state worker who dabbled in politics and lives just outside the capital.

"I loved the blue crystal chandelier in the dining room," Yourth said afterwards. "I'd love a chandelier like that. It's English crystal, I was told by the curator. But it was just a beautiful sea blue, and I've never seen that before. I would have liked to have taken a little sample of that with me. But as one of the staff pointed out 'how would we pay for it?'"

The question prompted by Yourth's trip to the governor's mansion — "How would we pay for it?" — is the big question mark looming over the head of the new governor. 

How exactly he'll do that is unclear.

So far, Cuomo's withholding details about the cuts that'll be in his budget plan. That'll come next month when he formally presents his first budget to the legislature.

He's facing a $10 billion deficit, and is vowing to cut services, and not raise taxes. Similar to how he ran his campaign, Cuomo has been involved with every aspect of his new administration, and slow to roll out specifics. He's created a handful of commissions to study ways to reshape state government. He only recently named a budget director, Robert Menga, who had the same job under Governor Paterson.

In Cuomo's first major speech to legislators, his State of the State speech, he tried educating the public to the budget process. Namely, he tried leaving them, literally, with the image of the governor as one of the three people who'll have to agree on the budget.

"Zoom in on that man in the battleship," Cuomo said during the speech, as he three boats slid back into view on one of giant screens that had been erected for his speech, inside the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. "Yes it is, Senator Majority Leader Dean Skelos. And look, it's Commander Sheldon Silver," said Cuomo, to much laughter. Then, he added, "Oh, and there I am."

Cuomo's use of funny pictures to show Albany's dysfunction is just one of the ways the state's 56th governor is trying to realign the power structure in the capital.

Substantively, he's introducing a level of fiscal conservatism not seen in Albany in recent memory. He spoke about freezing salaries for state workers, capping property taxes and state spending, and promising no new taxes. It was so striking that some people had a hard time remembering that the man who delivered the speech was Andrew Cuomo, son of the liberal icon, Mario Cuomo.

"Think about this," said former Newsday columnist Larry Levy, who's now with Hofstra University. "The son of the man who rebuked Ronald Reagan in 1984, for his shining City on a Hill spoke for 48 minutes, the most important speech of his life, talking about cutting billions of dollars for services." Levy noted that Cuomo "never once threw out the bone that even Republicans feel obliged to do: 'that we're going to make sure that the poorest and others who truly deserve help, get it.'"

After the governor's speech, everyone in the capital bounced around to various "receptions" hosted by lawmakers and lobbyists. Inside Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's gathering was the Democratic Majority Leader of that chamber, Ron Canestrari. He said he supports the governor's agenda, even though it wasn't one he could have imagined embracing until recently.

"[I] would not have expected this a few years ago, certainly coming from a Democratic governor," said Canestrari. He expressed reservations about Cuomo's vow to not raise taxes. Canestrari said it seemed unlikely the state could get it's fiscal house in order if they were only considering cuts, without some sort of new revenue generators.

Even people who are seeing their agenda being championed by Cuomo were expressing reservations.

Freshman Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Democrat questioned the timing of Cuomo's plan to publicly finance political campaigns. Cuomo mentioned this in one sentence during his 47-minute speech. (It came right after vowing to enact another plan legislators are expected to resist: non-partisan redistricting.)

"Public financing of campaigns is something I strongly advocated," said Weprin, who spent eight years in the City Council as the Chairman of the Finance Committee. "The question is 'is this the right year? Can we afford it this year? And what's the cost involved?"

Herman Denny Farrell, the Northern Manhattan Democrat — who was first elected to the chamber in 1974 — slowly made his way out of the convention center after Cuomo's speech. He said he's never seen Albany like this. "This is the worst time I've seen in 30-something years," said Farrell. "So, we're going to have to do bad things and do things we're not going to like. Let's see how he does and then we'll see what we can do and what we can't do."

But if Cuomo is making life for legislators miserable, he is, at least for now, giving hope to some who live in the state.

Back outside the governor's mansion, Yourth, a retired state worker, waited for about a half hour before she got to meet Cuomo. She said she just had to see Cuomo for herself, since, she has so much riding on him. "I think this is my last hope for things getting better," she said. "You know, I kind of hoped it would be with Spitzer, and that went into the gutter. This is my last hope. I like this state but it's getting more and more difficult to want to stay here and be a part of it."

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