Ed McKinley

ALBANY — When the New York Constitution was reorganized nearly 100 years ago to give the governor more power over the budget process, the report recommending the changes noted there was a risk of making “the governor a czar.”

Many observers believe that is exactly what has happened during the administration of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Interviews with historians, public policy experts, political scientists, two former governors and others, especially his fellow lawmakers, indicate Cuomo has grown remarkably powerful, whether in comparison to past New York governors or the current governors of other states.

“I am the government,” Cuomo said in his first term. To the extent that it was true then, it’s certainly more accurate now after 10 years on the job.

The combination of Cuomo’s iron-fisted personality and institutional knowledge of government operations — honed by decades of political experience in Albany and Washington — have buttressed his soaring popularity and the sweeping powers given to him during the coronavirus pandemic. The mixture, the observers said, makes him probably the most powerful New York governor since Nelson A. Rockefeller, who held the office from 1959 to 1973.

“We do not have co-equal branches of government in the state of New York,” said state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, a Westchester County Democrat. “I have many times said that the state of New York is less of a democracy and more of a monarchy, at least that’s what it feels like. In the past six months or so, the governor has amassed an enormous amount of power during the course of the pandemic. It just adds and tacks onto the power that he already has.”

“I would certainly rank him as maybe the most powerful governor in the United States,” said Timothy Kneeland, a professor of history and political science at Nazareth College.

An academic analysis of the governors of 50 states found that the New York governorship is second only to Maryland in the scope of its formal powers. The study scored state governorships on a series of measures — including appointment powers, reelection limits, budget authority and veto powers — and averaged scores to create a composite ranking. New York is unique among the largest states in the country with its powerful executive. The governorships of other large states — California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas — lag behind.

The powers bestowed upon a governor on paper are mixed with the individual personality and skills of the occupant of the office, and the governorship is reinvented each time the oath is taken. Cuomo had the benefit of running his father’s successful campaigns for governor, which kept Mario M. Cuomo in office from 1983 to 1994, and, like his father, has been governor for more than a decade. Although the powers of New York’s governor have grown over time, experts interviewed for this story were clear that it’s Cuomo’s knowledge, political savvy, ambition and personality that are the primary sources of his immense power.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in this state that has more institutional knowledge about how the state itself runs than he does,” said former Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat who served immediately before Cuomo.

Kneeland, who has been a political science and history professor at Nazareth College in Rochester, Monroe County, since 2000, concurred.

“I would say that it’s Andrew Cuomo,” he said of whether it’s the man or the office that determines how powerful the governor is. “You can have the fastest car in the world, but if you keep it in the garage it doesn’t matter how fast it is. You can have the best toolbox, but if you never ever employ the tools, then it’s wasted.”

Critics said that this consolidation of power in the hands of one elected official is contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers, leads to a lack of transparency, and allows the views of a single person to unfairly influence a policy process that is designed to be pluralistic and induce compromise.

“You cannot run a state of almost 20 million people just from one small, central command post. If you do, there are things that just aren’t going to get done,” said former Gov. George Pataki.

Supporters of Cuomo point to his legislative achievements over the last 10 years and his practice of passing on-time budgets. Senior Advisor Richard Azzopardi said that Cuomo gets what he wants because he has public support and he remains accountable to the voters.

“If New Yorkers did not like what we were doing, we wouldn’t be here. There has been several opportunities to renegotiate that contract,” he said.

The ‘800-pound gorilla in the room’

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuomo has concentrated his authority more than any time in his administration, overseeing details of the shutdown earlier this year and micro-managing the state’s reopening.

In March, the Legislature granted the governor unprecedented emergency powers in response to the virus, allowing him to unilaterally rewrite state law or issue “directives” with the stroke of a pen that hold the force of law. These vast emergency powers are temporary, although no final date for their end has been set. He has used them to suspend more than 250 laws and issue dozens of executive orders.

Biaggi noted that the expansion of the governor’s powers was buried in a bill authorizing $40 million in emergency funding to fight COVID-19. The governor wanted it that way, she said, because “if you’re voting against $40 million in relief for New Yorkers, even if you’re voting against it because you didn’t want the governor’s powers to be expanded, that wouldn’t be the story.”

The maneuver shows Cuomo’s ability to manipulate the levers of policy creation and government to exact maximum political leverage over his opponents and even his allies, a practice he mastered long before COVID-19 reached New York.

Three sources interviewed for this story, unprompted, used similar versions of the expression “800-pound gorilla in the room” to describe the muscle of the governor in negotiations with Assembly and Senate members.

Jim Malatras, the newly appointed chancellor of the State University of New York and formerly a longtime Cuomo administration official, said this stems from a “relentless” drive that the governor has for accomplishment.

“I mean he truly believes in: You have to get it done if you’re going to be successful,” Malatras said. “Why are you here if you’re not here to get it done?”

Pataki, who ousted Mario Cuomo from office and then served three terms of his own, said it’s important for a governor to exercise restraint.

“Government is not one person, it is three branches,” Pataki said. “So I guess in a nutshell, that was my philosophy. It was when you need to, exercise whatever powers and authority that you have, but as a general rule, try to be as inclusive of not just the other branches like the Legislature but also other levels of government like local and county government.”

“You don’t want a rubber stamp Legislature. That ultimately is very destructive of the interests of the state,” he said.

The main source of Cuomo’s power over the Legislature — and what sets Cuomo apart from his predecessors — is the way that he has dominated the budget process — a sweepstakes underpinning the state’s roughly $170 billion annual spending. Although the budget is in theory only a portion of the total policy that moves through Albany, it takes on outsized importance because of the negotiating leverage the governor has in the process and the fact that policies need money to come to life.

The fiscal plan sets the tone for legislation that moves through Albany, and often is replete with policies included at the governor’s behest.

“An elected official a day after Election Day is thinking of the next election, and even when we’re done with the budget we’re all thinking about what we might want from the governor in the next budget,” said Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat who has been in the chamber for 50 years. “Even when we’re not doing the budget, when people are thinking of giving the governor a hard time, they always have to remember what the governor can do in the budget.”

The governor also has a reputation for having a long memory for those who cross him.

“He is a petty and vengeful person. That is just a reality,” said Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Bronx Democrat.“I gave him the benefit of the doubt for the first couple of years. … I was concerned about the impact that speaking out would have, whether he would sign my pieces of legislation or respond to me politically in one shape or another.”

Rivera pointed to a 2012 bill he shepherded into law that authorized charities to post bail for people. That bill was up for renewal last year, and he said a representative of the governor extended a “handshake agreement” as part of the bail reform policy discussion to separately pass a bill extending Rivera’s charitable bail organization policies.

Later, he received a call from a Cuomo staffer who told him that the bill was going to be vetoed by the governor. She told Rivera that she “could not attest” that any agreement had been made for the governor to sign the bill.

“Although I do not have any direct evidence, it is my very strong belief based on those crappy excuses that that is just one of the ways in which he has directly tried to take a whack at me,” Rivera said. “Other folks might not give you things on the record, but I can guarantee you that this is a feeling that this is almost universal.”

“The problem with this administration is that when you disagree with them, they like to go to war with you. It becomes this journey to block efforts that you take. It is really not governing in good faith,” Biaggi said. “I think 10 years is a good amount of time to judge an administration. What I have seen is less of a focus on how to transform the state of New York, and more of a focus on how to maintain control and power over others.”

Biaggi noted that Azzopardi, Cuomo’s advisor, once publicly called her and two other female legislators “f—ing idiots” after they criticized the governor for holding a private, $25,000-per-plate campaign fundraiser during budget negotiations. She also said a bill she supports to extend health insurance to airport workers has been slow-walked, and she suspects it’s because of the governor’s personal distaste for her.

Azzopardi said he regretted his word choice but noted that Biaggi and others had held a similar fundraiser of their own before the governor’s.

“I should have just stuck to ‘hypocrites,’” he said.

“‎For some people, there’s a bogeyman behind every shrub,” Azzopardi said of Rivera and Biaggi. He said that Rivera’s bill was vetoed for policy reasons, and that Biaggi’s bill is still in play. He noted that the governor has signed more of those senators’ bills than he has vetoed in the last two years.

Supporters of the governor said his biggest weapons are his popularity with voters and ability to rally them to causes he supports, rather than any backroom dealing. Some interviewed for this story pointed out that hardball political tactics are hardly unique to Cuomo, although most acknowledged that he uses them with more enthusiasm than others.

“When something is important enough, you do have to play hardball in the sense that you use whatever levers of power you have to give a chance with whatever policies you think are right,” Pataki said. He pointed to a time when he refused to acquiesce to pay raises for the legislature until they passed a charter school bill.

“They weren’t tactics I particularly enjoyed, but they were tactics and powers that I legitimately had, and I felt the issue was strong enough that I had no qualms about using them to accomplish the goal,” he said.

The collective knowledge that Cuomo is not shy about playing hardball has created an if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us mindset, many interviewed for this story said.

This is not an intentional strategy by the governor, Azzopardi said, but rather a natural byproduct of a zealous public debate over policy. Lawmakers are also publicly critical of the governor all the time, he and Malatras said.

“What’s that old Machiavelli line? Should you be loved or hated?” asked Kneeland, the history professor. “Well, you should be both. And I think Andrew has both.”

Or, as Cuomo put it in an Aug. 14 press conference: “You can say many things about me. A hollow threat are not two words that tend to come to mind.”

“The corral with the most horses”

Since the constitutional change roughly 90 years ago, the governor has led the annual dance with the Legislature over how to allocate the state’s money. A new budget must be passed each year by April 1, which is the start of the state’s fiscal year, although it has often been late.

The governor submits his executive budget in January, and the Legislature is not allowed to modify the governor’s requests. The Legislature can reduce or zero-out an expenditure, but can’t add to or edit the terms of the funding. That formula gives the governor a powerful advantage in negotiations.

“If, for example, the governor in the school aid budget says ‘None of this money may be spent in a school that teaches trigonometry,’ … there is no way constitutionally for the Legislature to get trigonometry taught in New York schools for that fiscal year unless we persuade the governor to take that language out,” Gottfried said.

Cuomo — or any New York governor — can thus force lawmakers to request funding for a preferred policy or pet project in their district. This gives the governor tremendous leverage to negotiate, more so than in most other states.

“Money for the city of Albany to build playgrounds is not put in the governor’s budget as a favor to [Democratic Assemblyman] John McDonald,” said E.J. McMahon, research director at the Empire Center. “If he and 100 other guys want stuff like that, they have to get their (chamber) leader to get it in.”

Paterson, who served out nearly three years of scandal-plagued Eliot Spitzer’s only term as governor, noted that to send a message he once spent eight hours vetoing legislation that would have distributed cash to each legislator’s district projects when the budget was not yet balanced.

Read the rest at TimesUnion.com

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