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A Popular Cuomo Prepares to Deliver an Unpopular Budget

Monday, January 31, 2011

WNYC
Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg outside City Hall, on September 22, 2010. (Azi Paybarah / wnyc)

Andrew Cuomo is about to make a lot of people unhappy — not that it's sinking in just yet.

"Andrew Cuomo is not a polarizing figure," said Marist pollster Lee Miringoff, discussing the governor's latest numbers on New York 1. "Democrats, Republicans, independents, New York City, the suburbs and upstaters all pretty much saying, 'Hmmm, I kind of like this guy."

For a governor about to cut $10 billion out of the state budget, lay off tens of thousands of state workers, and "realign" the state to meet it's new fiscal realities, the Cuomo seen on Monday may not be around after he unveils his budget on Tuesday.

Key to Cuomo's budget plans are his pledges to cap property taxes at two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Plus, Cuomo has said he will not raise taxes nor borrow to keep up the current rate of spending by lawmakers, who for years, he says, have spent beyond their means.

Cuomo has taken a matter-of-fact tone to describe the drastic maneuvers he's about to unveil, saying it's the result of a "national economic decline, on top of a state that has been spending too much money for too long."

"Those two facts are now compounding and the chickens are coming home to roost," he said in Poughkeepsie earlier this month.

All that spending — those chickens coming home — was set in motion, year in and year out, by the legislators in Albany. But unlike his predecessors, Cuomo isn't steamrolling, scapegoating or even blaming them.

If anything, he's bludgeoning them with charm.

"The New York State legislature is the best legislature, historically, in the nation," he said in his State of the State speech. "The most talented people — that is who we are. And that's who we can be again."

Everyone applauded.

To win more than their applause for the austere budget, Cuomo is hosting meetings at the governor's mansion — complete with swordfish and chardonnay — as he talks about the need to slash about ten percent of the state budget.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver gushed that the governor served "too much."

But not everyone is getting that kind of treatment.

"I think the most generous way I can describe it was light refreshments," said Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic Assemblyman from Brooklyn. He met with the governor last week, along with colleagues from the Bronx and Westchester.

"Clearly it was consistent with the notion that we are in austere times and the days of wine and roses are over," Jeffries said of the meeting. "And it was made clear to us in advance of the meeting, 'don't cancel your dinner plans.' "

As lawmakers are plied with (some amount) of food and drinks by the governor, they are, for now, holding firm against his pledge to not raise taxes. Cuomo has said he does not favor renewing a temporary tax on people making more than $200,000 annually.

Most Assembly Democrats are on the record in support of it. Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz of the Bronx said the rich New Yorkers needed to pay their fair share, and brushed off concerns they would relocate to more favorable tax locales.

"I don't think they can pick up and leave," said Dinowitz. "There's no place to run. Other states are considering raising taxes and other states are in similar difficulties just as we are in New York."

Jeffries, not willing to embrace the worst-case scenario yet, said, "We can't devastate education and we can't devastate health care, but there is an opportunity to find waste, fraud and abuse within the [health care] system."

For now, Cuomo has managed to keep the tone of his critics at a minimum, in part by not publicly revealing details of his budget in advance. He's also been reaching out to people he's about to upset.

The governor has spoken with the head of the New York State United Teachers, the statewide union, as well as the United Federation of Teachers, their New York City-based counterparts, spokespeople for those unions said.

The powerful healthcare union, 1199 SEIU is part of Cuomo's Medicaid redesign team. A spokesperson for that union said they've met with aides to the governor, asking for additional funding to retrain some of their members who may be displaced amid the health care changes that may stem from the budget.

Even the noise coming out of New York City is not as openly hostile to Cuomo — yet, anyway — as one might expect.

New York City is bracing for a possible loss of up to $1 billion in state education aid — which is intensifying Mayor Bloomberg's fight with teacher unions about rules requiring teacher layoffs be based on seniority, rather than tenure. "Enough with Albany rules," Bloomberg said in a speech at a church in Brooklyn Sunday. 

Cuomo, for his part, is not weighing in on the issue, with aides saying it's not a fiscal matter, so it won't be part of the governor's budget address Tuesday.

The head of the UFT, Michael Mulgrew, told WNYC he appreciates Cuomo's directness on the budget, and refrained from criticizing him.

If Cuomo has playacted his potential adversaries, he's also demonstrated a shrewd willingness to move along without them.

At 11 p.m. on Friday, when few legislators were in Albany, the governor submitted his property tax cap legislation, which, as the New York Post noted, was the last possible moment for its submission in order to be ready for a vote on Monday.

The Republican-led State Senate is likely to pass the bill, aligning themselves with the fiscally-conservative Democratic governor hours before he unveils his budget. The Assembly Democrats, reportedly, were not told of the bill's submission.

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