Andrew Cuomo’s unorthodox State of the State presentation this week highlighted a disparity between his muscular rhetoric and his (so far) cautious approach to governing. Turning the familiar Teddy Roosevelt aphorism on its head, Cuomo spoke loudly but carried a small stick.

Cuomo started out strongly enough, bombarding his audience with statistical evidence of New York’s monumental governmental failure: out of control spending, taxes and poor results.

Then came the letdown. Despite his repeated denunciations of New York’s “special interests,” Cuomo seems anxious to placate them on key issues.

This became apparent when the focus turned to the state’s bloated and unaffordable Medicaid program: rather than unveil any ideas of his own for reforming the program, Cuomo said he would name a “Medicaid redesign team” comprised of health care “stakeholders,” including the very same hospital lobbyists and union bosses who have stymied past attempts at reform.

The idea was inspired by a similar maneuver in Wisconsin, whose former Medicaid director will now take over the same job in New York. Cuomo gave the team until March 1 – one month before the next fiscal year begins – to make initial recommendations for meeting his “budget target” for Medicaid.

However, Cuomo is still required by the state constitution to send the Legislature a “complete plan of expenditures” for the coming fiscal year by no later than Feb. 1. That plan – the 2011-12 Executive Budget – must include specific legislative proposals for any changes in spending formulas that are needed to achieve spending reductions.

Since Cuomo has promised to close the state’s $10 billion budget gap without raising taxes or borrowing, significant cuts to the Medicaid baseline inevitably must be part of his package.

So he is at least setting the stage for an implicit threat: If the Medicaid “team” fails to produce a solid alternative set of proposals for meeting Cuomo’s budget savings target, he can push his own, presumably more draconian cuts. Is he prepared to do so? We’ll see.

The one detailed and truly transformative plank in the Cuomo platform remains his proposal for a local property tax cap, which would limit the annual growth in tax levies to 2% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.

vBut Cuomo wouldn’t take a stand on the sensible mandate reform proposals, including changes to collective bargaining rules, proposed by local officials in both parties to help them cope with a cap. Instead, like Medicaid, mandate relief will be assigned by the governor to a “redesign team” union representatives as well as management – a near-certain formula for deadlock on any meaningful change. This group also will be required to report March 1.

The punting of tough issues to advisory panels conjures memories of former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who frequently resorted to the same practice during his three terms. To be sure, in requiring his Medicaid “team” to operate under the gun of the budget process, Andrew Cuomo has added a dramatic new wrinkle to the approach. But by emulating a now-departed Democratic administration in Wisconsin, Cuomo also unintentionally invited comparisons between himself and the Badger State’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker.

Like Cuomo, Gov. Walker says he is committed to transformative change. Like Cuomo, he says he wants to “right-size” government.

Unlike Cuomo, however, Walker seems ready to take the fight directly to his state’s most entrenched and powerful special interests.

For example: Although Wisconsin is known for a pro-labor political tradition, Walker has openly talked of abolishing public-sector collective bargaining rights if union members refuse to contribute more to their health insurance and pension costs. Now that’s a big stick.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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