In a brief and boisterous announcement in Queens yesterday morning, with progressive mascot Bernie Sanders at his side, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a new plan to provide free state college tuition to any student whose family earns less than $125,000. Cuomo’s proposal was met with thunderous approval from the students and labor leaders at LaGuardia Community College, where in-state tuition is $4,866 a year and where 67 percent of students have an annual family income of less than $25,000.
In announcing the college tuition program, Cuomo’s office said it would cost the state $163 million a year, which would be carved out through budget negotiations this winter. This falls in line with Cuomo’s preference for achieving pet projects through budget negotiations alone, and not going along with bills that have been handed to him by a state legislature that he intentionally keeps as dysfunctional and divided as possible (lest he have to veto bipartisan legislation he finds unappetizing or can’t take full credit for).
Compare Cuomo’s promise to pay for his tuition plan with his stunning veto a few days earlier that killed a bill passed by the legislature that would have the state pay for indigent legal services. The governor blamed the veto on the high costs of the legal services (his office estimated it to be $800 million).
Simply put, Cuomo is for unfunded projects except when he’s against them. Favored and still-unfunded projects that the governor has committed to include the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, the $26 billion MTA capital plan, at least $570 million for the rehab of Penn Station, the $450 million LaGuardia AirTrain, a $1 billion expansion of the Javits Center, and a new and desperately needed Hudson River tunnel which could cost as much as $10 billion for the state.
Right now on Wednesday afternoon, as this story is being published, the governor is announcing a $7 billion project to rebuild JFK Airport, presumably paid for in part by massive tax breaks to local developers.
Suddenly, the $800 million (which seems already quite inflated) that the state must spend to protect the basic rights of its citizens doesn’t seem like all that much.
This break in logic only grows when you consider how desperate Cuomo has become to patch the massive gaps in the budget that the Tappan Zee Bridge has left. This includes trying to get the EPA to sign off on a $511 million low-interest loan that would have helped pay to build the bridge (while not enhancing the environment one bit), and directing more than $3 billion in last year’s Executive Budget toward roads and bridges (again, to help pay for his new bridge) and not one cent to NYC’s mass transit. Cuomo’s press office consistently presses the idea that infrastructure projects can receive federal funding to help alleviate the burden on the state, but with conservatives now set to control all three branches of government in Washington, the outlook on federal funding appears bleak.
Defending Cuomo’s preference for rule by an unfunded decree followed by closed-door budget negotiations (and not legislation passed by elected officials), spokesman Richard Azzopardi told the Voice that when it came to the $163 million for college aid, “our proposal will be dealt with in the confines of the budget.” Azzopardi said the indigent defense bill “had an $800 million price tag with no plan to fund it and no plan to make one. As we said, that issue will be revisited this year.”
Pressed further by reporters on Twitter, Azzopardi went a little further:
— Rich Azzopardi (@RichAzzopardi) January 3, 2017
Yet revisiting the issue through budget negotiations would presumably lower the state’s investment while keeping Cuomo the arbiter of what amount of progressivism can be allowed in his state. A college tuition bill similar to Cuomo’s proposal was put forward by two state legislators last spring, but Albany’s leadership tuned out. The same thing happened with the battle over the state’s minimum wage, where Cuomo ignored calls from fellow Democrats for a raised minimum wage statewide, in favor of a compromise deal reached through budget negotiations, that leaves out upstate areas with conservative politicians who opposed the wage increase.
Sanders has proven that real progressive ideas are palatable to voters, and Cuomo, glancing toward 2020, has clearly taken notice. If that means that Cuomo will be far more receptive to issues like affordable housing, the millionaire’s tax, and combating the agenda of the Trump administration, then that’s a positive sign for the entire state. However, if he continues to try to achieve these progressive policies through defying and taking power away from our elected legislature, then Cuomo will remain a bulwark against the will of the people and appear to be someone who values power above all else.
Right now, even when the left should be celebrating a huge victory for a progressive policy once shunned by the centrist contingent of the Democratic party, this alliance remains tenuous and completely in the hands of a governor who has consolidated power and shown a deep appetite for petty feuds. For the next four years, while Cuomo aims to burnish his reputation, it’s up to the residents of New York State to let the country know that Andrew Cuomo isn’t the progressive champion he’s pretending to be, but just the opposite.