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Albany’s Budgetary Trash Fire Yields Cuomo’s Smokescreen Power Grab

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For the past six budget cycles, Governor Andrew Cuomo has masterfully played state Democrats and Republicans off each other, getting budgets delivered mostly on time within the financial constraints demanded by Republicans, and paying token homage to progressive goals championed by Democrats. Going into this weekend, the budget talks had all the hallmarks of a successful Cuomo-style negotiation. Progressive legislators had several big-ticket items, such as “Raise the Age,” money for housing and education, and the extension of a “millionaires’ tax,” while Republicans wanted lower taxes and to keep New York State as hostile to immigrants as possible.

Before the weekend, the governor seemed unworried about the budget but, just to spice things up, decided to float the idea of a “budget extender” that would fund necessary items for the state as legislators continued to duke it out. He also warned of incoming budget cuts from Washington that would necessitate a lean budget, preempting both progressive calls for more social services and Republican calls for tax cuts.

Everything was going Cuomo’s way, and then it all went wrong.

Over the weekend, leaders of the senate Republicans, assembly Democrats, and the de facto third ruling party, the Independent Democratic Conference, failed to find common ground on issue after issue. First, it was Raise the Age, which Republicans wanted watered down completely. Then it was 421-a, which gives a huge tax cut to real estate developers in exchange for minuscule amounts of affordable housing. After that came housing and education. Then Raise the Age again.

By Sunday night, it was clear that no full budget would be able to pass the state senate during a Cuomo-declared “grace period” and that come Monday, the state wouldn’t be able to pay its employees. And so came the governor’s budget extender, a 1,700-page document that Cuomo rammed through both the assembly and the senate that would keep the state government functioning while also, curiously, continue to fund Cuomo’s favored projects. The governor’s regional economic development plans were fully funded, as was his controversial and scandal-ridden “Buffalo billions” initiative.

Negotiations continued on Monday, but instead of being any closer to a deal, it appeared that warring factions were ready to dig in. Republicans began a mudslinging campaign, releasing coordinated statements saying that assembly Democrats were attempting to decriminalize “violent crimes including rape and murder” as part of the Raise the Age reforms.

These statements so enraged Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie that he began contemplating the once-unthinkable: reunifying the Democrats in Albany in opposition to a watered-down Raise the Age, something no one has been able to accomplish since the IDC, a breakaway group of opportunist Democrats, began coordinating with Republicans to help defeat progressive legislation. And while the IDC arrangement in state government will most likely be nearing an end anyway, with several IDC members having to fight off vicious primaries during 2018 midterms, and Democrats achieving a virtual “tie” in the state senate after a May special election that will be won by their party, no one thought that this would be the issue or moment that Democrats would finally come back together (and this being the most dysfunctional state government in the nation, odds are that it most likely won’t).

This morning, Assembly Leader Heastie asked the governor to “send us the budget bills. We will pass them,” trying to get the assembly out of bearing any responsibility for a late budget. Republicans, on the other hand, remain unwilling to let the assembly’s version of Raise the Age remain intact.

And Cuomo? Over the weekend, he kept an extremely low profile, ducking in and out of the back rooms where he hammers out these budget deals. Today, his press office says, he’s in Albany, and some statements have been released since the weekend. At the moment, he’s touring a grounded barge in Catskill, forty miles from Albany. Some state senators are confident they’ll be able to vote today. Who knows? Speaking to reporters at the barge site, Cuomo said that “there’s no great rush to get anything done,” explaining that the extender will work just fine until after the Easter break. State legislators, who don’t get paid until a budget is passed, may have other ideas.

One thing for sure is that the balance of power that Cuomo has created in Albany, where he has actively worked against a Democratic state senate so that he can continue to be the primary arbiter of how New York State is run, is beginning to show its cracks. It has survived countless indictments, a runaway caucus, and the continued public pantsing of the mayor of New York City, but it is no longer running as smoothly as it once did. Cuomo’s budget extender, which allows him to throw the legislature into a state of permanent budget negotiation for possibly the next two months, helps consolidate his power over the government while limiting legislators’ abilities to actually legislate. It’s a desperate and cynical power grab that keeps the governor exactly where he wants to be right now: in the dark, away from the spotlight, and as far away as possible from the mind-numbing mess he’s created in Albany.

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