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Cuomo's budget victory tour overshadowed by scandals in the legislature

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been touring statewide to promote the newly passed state budget, saying it shows that New York state is functional again. But not everyone is completely convinced.
Cuomo has been visiting major upstate regions, promoting the passage of the third on-time or early budget in a row. In Buffalo, he held up a hockey puck as a prop, comparing the achievement to hockey’s hat trick.

In Rochester, he explained to the invited audience why he believes it’s an accomplishment.

“And you might say ‘so what, you’re supposed to pass a budget on time, that’s no big deal,'” Cuomo said. “It’s not big deal in the real world. In Albany, it is a very big deal, however.”

Cuomo, speaking to reporters after a budget presentation in Oswego, says he thinks the early budget is a key sign of Albany’s return to functionality.

“The budgets were a symbol of the dysfunction for many, many years,” said Cuomo, who said the process represented “chaos.”

“The government is working better than before,” the governor said. “Are we perfect? No.”

The not-so-perfect part of state government was the focus of news headlines during the governor’s budget tour, and threatened to overshadow his message that he has fixed Albany.

Two major corruption scandals were announced by the U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara . One involves New York State Senator Malcolm Smith, who is accused of trying to bribe his way onto the Republican ticket for New York City mayor. In exchange for the money for the bribes, Smith was allegedly going to steer state transportation money to a road project that would benefit a Rockland County developer.  

In the second scandal, State Assemblyman Eric Stevenson is accused of taking bribes to write legislation that would directly benefit developers of an adult day care center.  Another assemblyman in that case, Nelson Castro, resigned after admitting that he’s been an informant since he took office in 2009.

Cuomo was asked about the charges in stops he made on his tour. He initially said while the accusations are “very troubling,” no number of laws and prosecutions can completely stop some lawmakers from behaving badly.

“People do stupid things, frankly, people do illegal things, people in power abuse power, that’s part of the human condition,” said Cuomo. “We do everything we can do to try to stop it and to try to prevent it.”

Cuomo was done with his budget events for the week when news of the Assemblyman Stevenson scandal broke. Cuomo called the allegations “appalling.” He says when he was Attorney General, he helped to convict former Senate Leader Pedro Espada, and former State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, of criminal corruption.

The budget Cuomo was promoting includes a phase-in of an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $9 an hour. There’s also a tax cut package that includes the distribution of $350 rebate checks to middle class families with children, to be distributed shortly before elections, as well as small business tax cuts. It’s paid for through an extension of a tax on millionaires and the continuation of a utility surcharge.  

Cuomo has released a web video touting the budget’s achievements. He has also invited business leaders to the executive mansion and held conference calls with key Democratic officials across the state to make his case.

Despite that, some business groups have been cool to the budget. Unshackle Upstate calls it a “step backwards” and a “missed opportunity,” because it extends the taxes and surcharges, and does not stop so-called unfunded mandates that cost local governments money.

Elizabeth Lynam, with the budget watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission, credits Cuomo and the legislature for holding the line on spending to a no more than a 2 percent increase from last year. But she says she’s concerned about the back-loaded tax cuts, an old Albany habit that was absent from Cuomo’s first two budgets.

“It is more of a pattern from the past, the back-loaded tax promises, some spending in school aid that won’t hit until the next year,” Lynam said.

The state’s comptroller, Tom DiNapoli, agrees that lawmakers should be more cautious about spending money in future years with what’s so far been a very tentative economic recovery.

“We’ve still fallen short of our revenue projections at the beginning of the budget year,” said DiNapoli. “And we have to control spending.”

Cuomo and the legislature will be moving on to other issues when the legislature returns from a two week break on April 15. They range from decriminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana and expansion of gambling casinos, to campaign finance reform.   

But the growing scandals are likely to cast a pall on the remainder of the session.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.