By Karen DeWitt, New York State Public Radio Capital Bureau Chief
Governor Andrew Cuomo is taking some heat for a series of actions being criticized as consolidating more power for the executive branch, at the expense of the legislature and even some other statewide office holders.
When Cuomo’s tax commissioner authorized nearly three dozen members of the New York State Inspector General’s staff to look at state employees’ tax returns as part of an investigation, it was met with reservations by members of the state legislature.
“There are just general privacy concerns,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Silver says, ordinarily, tax returns can only be viewed under a judge’s order. The Cuomo Administration insists it was merely the result of a restructuring to increase efficiency in state government.
The action came as the Governor had already beefed up his newly created Department of Financial Services to claim some investigatory powers traditionally controlled by the State Attorney General. In his budget plan, Cuomo also seeks to eliminate the State Comptroller’s role of pre-auditing state contracts, a move strongly objected to by Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.
“I don’t know that that trade off really makes sense in the long run,” said DiNapoli. “Sometimes our pre audits actually point out situations where we can get a better deal for the state and for taxpayers.”
Di Napoli says for example, the pre audits saved $700,000 in a review of a medical contract from SUNY Stony Brook, and red flagged a state contract for $14.5 million dollars from the Office of General Services with an energy company, after his office discovered the firm included an alleged member of the Gambino crime family.
Cuomo is also getting push back for more changes he wants to make in the state budget.
The governor, in a single paragraph repeated numerous times throughout the proposal, wants the ability to move around money in state agencies and authorities without the legislature’s advance permission. Cuomo’s budget director says the new powers are needed to improve “flexibility”, but legislators are not pleased.
Senator Liz Krueger, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, raised questions at a recent hearing. Krueger said she’s concerned it could be “potentially stripping the entire purpose of the legislature in budget negotiations”.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos told the Buffalo News, “I don’t think that’s something that’s going to be acceptable to the legislature.”
Skelos says he’s confident, though that an amicable solution can be worked out.
The Governor also convinced the new state ethics panel to name his top investigative aid and former prosecutor Ellen Biben as executive director. The commission probes corruption charges against the governor and the legislature.
Cuomo’s also taken charge of economic development grants through his Regional Economic Development Council. In the past the pots of money were shared between the governor and legislature, many ended up as member item grants.
Speaking to reporters in Syracuse, the Governor defended himself, saying the Comptroller and state legislators who oppose his recent actions just want to “keep the status quo”.
“The Albany politicians created this system, I’m trying to change it,” said Cuomo. “They’re trying to protect it. It’s that simple.”
Cuomo, saying he is the only one speaking for the people, says it’s the legislature that is trying to hold on to power. And he says it’s part of a larger resistance to his plans to create more stringent teacher evaluations, and to reform the state’s pension system to offer 401(k)s.
So far, the public seems to agree with Cuomo more than his critics. A recent Siena College poll asked voters if they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements about the governor. One of them reads “Governor Cuomo is trying to impose his agenda on New Yorkers, acting more like a king than a governor.”
Siena’s Steve Greenberg says an overwhelming majority answered “no”.
“They think he’s providing leadership,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg says the public may not agree with every stance the governor has taken, but they seem relieved that someone in state government is acting like a leader.