There’s been a running joke these last few months as successive scandals have engulfed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The joke is that each new allegation of personal or professional misconduct seems curiously accompanied by the abrupt announcement of a long-awaited event — almost like an offering to restive New Yorkers who might be tiring of the governor’s antics.
Reports that Cuomo’s administration had tried to obscure grim nursing-home death statistics was paired with the news that indoor dining was reopening in New York. (SNL skewered the timing of the decision, the wisdom of which is being called into question now as Covid rates spike across the state). On the heels of multiple accusations of sexual harassment against the governor, came the announcement that Cuomo had made a deal to legalize recreational weed. Cuomo has denied any wrongdoing; he signed the bill into law today.
And, on Monday, hours before a new accuser stepped forward to allege she’d been forcibly kissed by the governor after he toured her flood-damaged home, Cuomo trumpeted the news that vaccine eligibility was opening up to New Yorkers over 30, and would soon expand to those over 16 as well. (New York was, until then, one of the only states left that had not yet announced eligibility dates for the general public.)
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The precariousness of Andrew Cuomo’s political situation and his apparent willingness to cash in the political bargaining chips he’s got left have created a strange new dynamic in Albany as the deadline to finalize the New York state budget by midnight on Thursday, April 1 looms.
In a normal year, Cuomo wields immense power over the state’s budget, dictating, almost unilaterally, exactly how much money is spent and on what. Almost unilaterally because, in a normal year, Cuomo has to at least consult with the state’s Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — the so-called “three men in a room” responsible for hammering out the state’s financial plan.
But this is not a normal year. For one thing, both Stewart-Cousins and Heastie have veto-proof majorities in their respective chambers, meaning they could, in theory, override Cuomo. For another, this year’s dynamic is a bit awkward, for obvious reasons. Stewart-Cousins — one of the earliest lawmakers to call on Cuomo to resign — said two weeks ago she had not spoken to the governor since speaking out.
As the budget deadline rapidly approaches with virtually no news of its progress, it seems likely that negotiations may stretch past Thursday, possibly into next week. (Cuomo, for his part, seems eager to blame any delay on Heastie’s recent Covid-19 diagnosis; on Twitter, Heastie rejected the notion that his illness could impact negotiations.)
The newly-empowered legislative leaders, the politically-imperiled governor, and the Covid-19 pandemic have conspired to create a kind of clusterfuck that longtime observers say has made the typically-opaque New York budget process even more of a black box than it normally is. “This is like the scene in the old movies where one guy mutters to the other guy, ‘It’s quiet out there.’ And the other guy says, ‘Yeah, too quiet,’” says E.J. McMahon, senior fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy.
But that quiet could be good news for activists and lawmakers who are pushing for an ambitious progressive agenda, that would include, among other priorities, relief for New Yorkers who have fallen behind on rent, money for prekindergarten programs, and a multibillion dollar fund to aid undocumented workers who have not been eligible for public assistance throughout the pandemic.
“We’re in negotiations with the executive and we’re pushing for more money and greater eligibility,” says State Sen. Jessica Ramos of Queens, who co-sponsored legislation to create the fund. Asked whether the governor’s scandals have noticeably impacted this year’s negotiations, Ramos says, “It’s hard to tell because every year is so different. This one is certainly the most different — there have been many distractions for that team.”
The budget proposals from both houses of the state legislature included $2.1 billion for the excluded workers fund, but no money was put aside for it in the budget Gov. Cuomo debuted back in January. The fact that negotiations are now centered around who will be eligible for the fund, not whether it will exist at all, could be seen as a sign of Cuomo’s weakened negotiating position. (Advocates have called the Cuomo administration’s insistence that workers show proof that they lost income during the pandemic a “poison pill” meant to render the fund inaccessible to those who need it most.)
In the final hours ahead of the budget deadline, the fight seems centered on the question of how much to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy — another indication of Cuomo’s relative weakness this year. The governor’s January budget proposal included a temporary tax increase on the wealthy, but the governor’s budget director has since said the state has enough money that it could avoid “any significant level of tax increases” in the 2022 budget.
In December, the governor suggested that massive cuts to Medicaid and school budgets might be necessary in a “doomsday” scenario in which the state found itself many billions in the hole. But the influx of billions of dollars in federal aid, approved as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and an additional $5 billion recently “identified” by the governor in the state’s couch cushions, helped to stave off the prospect of major cuts.
Still, progressive activists, lobbyists, and lawmakers believe that the incredible concentration of wealth in New York is a resource that should be tapped. One of the most outspoken advocates for a tax on the ultra-wealthy is Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers Union, a powerful interest group in the state. And if Pallotta’s optimism about the budget, indicated at a recent briefing, is any sign, Cuomo may have to roll over on taxes too. “I believe we’re in a very good place with the legislature,” Pallotta said. “Now we just have to make it through this final confusement with the governor involved and his positions on things.”
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