Getting a jump on the arrival of the Democrats’ big new Senate majority in Albany, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this week delivered a preview of his annual State of the State Address. He used it to remind his fellow Democrats of the many areas where they agree — but also to draw a few lines he won’t cross.
The speech was a medley of familiar Cuomo themes, including heavy doses of Trump-bashing as well as repeated invocations of Franklin Roosevelt as the governor’s model.
Cuomo renewed support for liberal positions on issues ranging from abortion and gun control to campaign-finance rule changes. The new addition to the list was the governor’s belated but not-unexpected embrace of pot legalization.
Mindful of where the buck (literally) stops in the Capitol, Cuomo also deflected the two biggest potential budget-busters tacitly embraced by the new Senate majority: a state-run single-payer health system and a further boost in New York’s $27 billion school-aid formula.
Without mentioning single-payer, he pledged to introduce “legislation protecting those with pre-existing conditions, codifying the health exchange and ensuring continued access to prescription drug coverage.” All of which adds up to continuing the status quo.
On education, New York’s never-ending funding battles have been fueled by claims arising from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity litigation, which challenged the adequacy of state aid to New York City schools before the Court of Appeals issued a final ruling (mainly accepting the state’s terms) in 2006. Then came former Gov. Elliot Spitzer’s promise of a massive hike in “foundation aid,” which was quickly derailed by the Great Recession.
In a burst of reality-based rhetoric, Cuomo called CFE and the Spitzer-era aid formula “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.” Noting New York already spends more per pupil than any state, he blamed lingering inequities on unfair distribution at the district level.
Cuomo’s stand on school aid implicitly rejects higher state income taxes on the wealthy, which advocates seek to pay for a bigger aid increase than the next budget can accommodate. Yet he also pledged to “maintain” the state’s existing millionaire tax, which is due to sunset at the end of 2019.
He didn’t explain how this would square with his pledge to continue holding state spending growth to 2 percent — which, if he sticks to it, would mean he doesn’t need some 80 percent of the $4.5 billion the surtax raises.
Meanwhile, in the same sentence as his mention of the millionaire tax, Cuomo added that he would seek to “make permanent our 2 percent cap on the regressive local property taxes.”
The cap — Cuomo’s most significant fiscal legacy, first enacted in 2011 — is temporary, embedded in the temporary state law regulating rents in New York City, up for renewal next year.
Cuomo’s promise to seek a permanent tax cap is encouraging but not necessarily reassuring. When the cap was last due to expire in 2015, Cuomo made a similar promise but failed to deliver.
The governor said his 2019 agenda for New York was inspired by FDR’s famous “First 100 Days” as president, but he could have found a more pertinent example in another of his predecessors: Alfred Smith, FDR’s political patron, who first took office as governor 100 years ago.
Smith was known for countering political critics with the phrase: “Let’s look at the record.” Viewed through any political prism, Smith’s record of administrative and social reform has stood the test of time.
Cuomo’s is much more mixed.
Cuomo took office eight years ago as a fiscally conservative fixer. He closed a $10 billion budget gap without new taxes, restrained spending growth, enacted the property-tax cap and slashed state business taxes — bankrolling much of it with his extension of the millionaire tax, which he previously had pledged to end.
During his second term, he has doubled down on environmental and labor policies that will impose a heavy and growing cost burden on private employers — especially bad news for a struggling upstate economy.
Throughout his tenure, he’s positioned himself as a Master Builder of public infrastructure — but with more focus on flashy mega-projects than on maintenance of existing transit and highway systems.
Deprived of compliant foils in the former GOP Senate majority, Cuomo will launch his third term in an altered Albany landscape. With Democrats in commanding control of both houses of the Legislature, the question is whether he’ll continue to lead the Albany parade — or find himself struggling to stay in front.