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Governor Andrew Cuomo is having a moment. On Tuesday, he took the stage with Bernie Sanders to unveil a plan to offer free college tuition for families earning less than $125,000. As the crowd of LaGuardia Community College students chanted “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” Cuomo clapped along, a wide grin on his face.
Never mind the well-intentioned Excelsior Scholarship will need legislative approval, where Cuomo’s Senate Republican friends still hold sway, or has no clear funding stream, beyond some money from existing tuition assistance programs. The announcement made a striking headline and scene for the once proudly centrist governor, now beginning to tinker with the idea of a White House run: a progressive icon with the 25-and-under crowd crediting him with a “revolutionary idea.”
But New Year’s Eve was another reminder that Cuomo’s liberalism will always have a ceiling. In a move that galled criminal justice reform advocates and elected officials in both parties, the governor quietly vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have required the state to pick up the cost from counties to fund legal services for the poor. The legislation had passed the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate.
Local counties, already contending with a Cuomo-imposed cap on increasing property taxes, have limited resources, and the problem with the status quo is obvious: the finances and politics of counties vary, and so too does the standard of justice. A conservative county executive can slash funds to public defense, and the poor person unable to afford a decent lawyer finds a quicker path to a guilty plea and a criminal record.
In 2014, New York State settled a lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union over funding for public defenders in five counties — Suffolk, Schuyler, Ontario, Onondaga and Washington — which motivated the state to provide more funding there. The lawsuit alleged that the conditions of indigent legal defense in the five counties did not live up to New York’s constitutional obligations as mandated by the Supreme Court decision of Gideon v. Wainwright. Since then, counties around the state have sought the help those five received, and the legislation was born.
Cuomo’s office said the legislature’s plan would cost the state too much money — as much as $800 million, by their estimates — and promised to introduce their own initiative to address the lawsuit this year. “Until the last possible moment, we attempted to reach an agreement with the legislature that would have achieved the stated goal of this legislation, been fiscally responsible, and had additional safeguards to ensure accountability and transparency,” said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman. “Unfortunately an agreement was unable to be reached and the legislature was committed to a flawed bill that placed an $800 million burden on taxpayers — $600 million of which was unnecessary — with no way to pay for it and no plan to make one.”
But this argument seems somewhat odd in the wake of Tuesday’s grand tuition announcement. Why does free schooling across the state require no current, viable funding plan but indigent defense does? How much will Cuomo deviate from the legislation he shot down? Why can’t the state just pay for both?
More importantly, if Cuomo is so concerned with fiscal prudence, why not make a serious effort to stop arresting New Yorkers for so many petty offenses? Seventy percent of arrests in the entire state are for misdemeanors. Were the state to decriminalize misdemeanor drug possession, the cost of defending the poor would drop because less people would be interacting with the criminal justice system.
This would mean Cuomo, and his erstwhile buddy Mayor Bill de Blasio, dispensing with their reverence for “Broken Windows” policing. Neither man has yet shown the guts for that.