Throughout Wednesday, details about a supposed budget deal between Governor Andrew Cuomo, senate Republicans, and assembly Democrats started to emerge that seemed not only odd but incredibly unrealistic. The massive 421-a tax break for developers, which expired last January, would now be tied to city rent regulations, meaning that if the $800 million a year in developer subsidies were ever removed, the city of New York would be thrown into free market chaos as regulated tenants saw their rents skyrocket. Charter schools would now see a massive increase in funding at a time when public schools are scrambling for funds. “Raise the Age” was being watered down to a point beyond recognition. And funding for indigent legal services was now something that Cuomo wanted to revisit, after he vetoed it last year.
In fact, Cuomo kept bringing up more and more issues with the budget in the supposed final hours of negotiations. By the end of Wednesday, lawmakers had thrown up their hands, and many left town wondering what the hell had just happened.
What had happened was this: Andrew Cuomo, who thrives in the toxic miasma of Albany dysfunction, had just sabotaged the budget process.
For the past six years, Cuomo has prided himself on passing on-time budgets, which usually contained some social service increases to please Democrats and tax cuts to please Republicans. But once this year’s negotiations dragged into last weekend, and an on-time budget looked increasingly unlikely, Cuomo embraced the idea of a “budget extender,” which would the keep the state operating for the next two months by using the parameters of last year’s budget but not include any of the contentious issues that are holding up the new one. Without a new budget or an extender, state offices wouldn’t have opened on Monday, a shutdown threat legislators usually employ as leverage to get a deal done.
Over the weekend, Cuomo told the legislature that a deal was “close,” and the extender bill would give them a few more days to iron everything out. Shortly after introducing the 700-page extender bill, the legislature voted to approve it, with none of its members having read it.
As it turned out, the extender bill kept the government from shutting down while keeping Cuomo’s own pet projects fully funded. But it also took the pressure off of Cuomo to get a deal done: With no shutdown on the horizon, Cuomo could take as long as he wanted to negotiate a deal he was pleased with. Legislators, on the other hand, won’t get paid until they vote on a final budget. They begin a three-week break on Thursday.
“What is happening right now is ridiculous,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said after the budget blew up. “Dysfunction and chaos has descended on Albany. This situation has spiraled out of control and New Yorkers deserve better.”
While “dysfunction and chaos” doesn’t necessarily “descend” on Albany so much as appear as if controlled by tidal forces, Stewart-Cousins’s exasperation is a far cry from the optimism that lawmakers were showing when they voted on the budget extender.
For weeks, Cuomo has stated his preference for a budget that would allow him to tinker with it throughout the year, controlling disbursements without legislative approval. This, he claims, would give New York flexibility to deal with federal cuts that are sure to come later this year.
“I am looking for continuing financial flexibility in the budget process,” he said during a press conference following the breakdown of budget negotiations yesterday, “but certainty and permanence in the operations that need to continue, which is what we accomplished in the extender.”
The extender and sabotaging of the budget negotiation process is perhaps Cuomo’s most blatant move toward a total consolidation of power. By shooting down progressive priorities at every turn, like vetoing a bipartisan indigent defense bill or reneging on funding for an affordable housing plan, and empowering senate Republicans through his alliance with the Independent Democratic Conference, Cuomo has pushed all meaningful legislative initiatives into the budgeting process, where he can control much of the debate and its attendant anarchy.
With U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara deposed and ethics reforms completely off the table, Cuomo has leaked details of supposed “deals” to media outlets (like the noxious 421-a rumor that first appeared in Politico Pro, cited to “sources close to the negotiations”), sending Democrats into a frenzy of dissent. He’s upped his game by texting Democrats in the middle of closed-door negotiations to let them know that, yes, he’s somehow listening in, and he hears them shit-talking him.
At his strangely victorious press conference on Wednesday evening, Cuomo seemed unfazed by the late budget, something that would have driven him insane almost a year ago.
“Having the right resolution is more important than just having a resolution,” Cuomo told reporters, laying out a rationale for budget negotiations stretching on for weeks.
Instead of a resolution, he has secured an even greater victory: a process of permanent negotiations in which, for at least the next two months, he holds all the cards. Cuomo will be able to toy with the legislature and bend it to his will on issues like Raise the Age, which he’d like done in a way that won’t have to be revisited; 421-a, which he’d like made as permanent as possible (which is why he’s trying to tie developer tax breaks to rent regulations, ensuring that progressive downstaters can’t go after them without cooking their own goose); and support for charter schools, which he’d like to keep so long as it doesn’t take too much money away from public schools. It’ll be a longer, more grueling budget battle, with the real losers being social services and other care providers in New York that will operate with no idea of what the future budget may hold. (The budget is kept mostly secret even after it’s voted on.)
For the New Yorkers who rely on those programs, this will lead to a loss of the security that comes with a finalized budget. But for someone like Cuomo, whose ideology bends only toward the consolidation of power, this is what triumph looks like.