Gov. Cuomo’s combined State of the State message and Executive Budget rollout this week showcased the governor at his best — and worst.

At best, there was Cuomo the fiscal fundamentalist, whose proposed budget for fiscal 2016 would allow state operating funds spending to rise by just 1.7 percent. If he holds his ground, the inflation-adjusted budget trend will be close to flat across his first five years in office.

The governor also pledged to stand behind his signature accomplishment on behalf of local taxpayers — by seeking permanent enactment of the historic 2011 cap on property tax levies outside New York City.

The 2 percent tax-growth cap is due to sunset in June 2016 under a provision linked to the extension of New York City’s rent control laws, which expire this June.

That awkward arrangement reflects the baneful influence of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who was the main obstacle to Cuomo’s original proposal for a permanent property tax limit four years ago.

Silver’s arrest Thursday on federal corruption charges could strengthen the governor’s ability to leverage a truly enduring tax cap out of this legislative session.

On a different front, the governor was in fine rhetorical fettle when it came to challenging the notion that pumping more money into the nation’s best-funded public schools will automatically produce better results.

The state aid formula gives significantly more money to “high needs” districts, so the Buffalo system gets double the aid of the average district — yet remains a chronic failure, Cuomo noted.

“So don’t tell me that if we only had more money, it would change,” he added, calling for reform of teacher-evaluation and -tenure laws.

He followed that up by advocating other reforms: more charter schools and a new Education Tax Credit to promote contributions to nonprofit scholarship funds and public schools.

Yet, moments later, Cuomo proposed a further expansion — to cover children as young as 3 — of the state’s dubious and costly commitment to publicly-funded universal pre-kindergarten.

And in the area of tax policy, the governor’s proposed $1.7 billion in “property tax relief” wasn’t really a tax cut but a subsidy, in the form of a credit that would flow to less than half of homeowners.

Once again, he avoided proposing meaningful reforms of collective-bargaining laws and other state mandates that drive up local costs, and so push up local taxes.

This was Cuomo at his worst: pushing hyperbole and gimmickry over substance.

The cynical, political side of Cuomo’s approach to budgeting was exemplified by his plans for the $5.4 billion windfall from bank settlements.

Cuomo announced this month that he’d set aside $1.5 billion in windfall money for an upstate economic development competition.

This is premised on the notion that he can repeat the (as yet unproven) “model of success” of his “Buffalo Billion” package of subsidies to businesses willing to expand or locate in upstate’s largest city.

In reality, the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metro area has been adding jobs at less than half the national pace, and upstate as a whole is barely growing at all.

The governor said he’d deposit another $3 billion of windfall cash into a “new special infrastructure account.”

But barely half that amount — most of it targeted to the Thruway Authority — would be committed to transportation infrastructure, where capital needs are greatest. He’d scatter the rest in smaller pieces among lower-priority projects, including $500 million in matching funds for broadband Internet access.

Cuomo painted this as innovative, saying, “Infrastructure today is less about roads and bridges, in my opinion, and it is more about broadband.” Really? Try driving a car or truck down the information highway.

Speaker Silver’s legal troubles have shaken the state Capitol to its foundations, and this may well strengthen the governor’s hand in the coming budget negotiations. But Cuomo will produce better results if he ditches gimmickry and refocuses on fundamentals.

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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