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Did Cuomo overreach in the state budget?

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo began the budget season with an ambitious agenda than included a wide array of items that he tied to the budget, including raising the minimum wage, the Dream Act, and reforming the state’s grand jury process. In the end, the governor was forced to retrench on nearly every measure.

Cuomo spent a week in January rolling out his ambitious budget agenda, which contained plans for a new criminal justice system for teens who commit serious crimes and a major upstate economic development program. 

He also threatened to withhold an increase to school aid if lawmakers did not comply with an extensive overhaul of the state’s education system.

A few days later, Cuomo argued that he needed to roll numerous unrelated items into the budget, because that’s when he stood the best chance of winning agreement from the legislature. 

“A governor’s maximum leverage vis-à-vis the legislature is in the budget process,” Cuomo said. “A governor can effectively say to the legislature ‘Either pass my budget or shut down the government.’”

But one day after the governor’s ambitious budget was released, the Assembly Speaker was arrested by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, charged with illegally making millions of dollars through his employment at two private law firms.

“Today we unseal a criminal complaint charging the longtime leader of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, with public corruption,” Bharara said on January 22.

As Silver resigned his post and the Assembly scrambled to elect a new leader, the governor added ethics reform and greater financial disclosure of law clients to his long list.

“I will not sign a budget that does not have an ethics plan as outlined in my proposal,” Cuomo said at the time.

With a new speaker, the tradition of the “three men in a room” secretive budget meetings where large complex deals have been forged between the governor and legislative leaders broke down.

Speaker Carl Heastie insisted that the budget items be unlinked and taken one by one; that the legislature not be jammed.

“Legislators should not have to negotiate a budget under threats. This is America,” Heastie said in an interview with public radio and television.

Polls found that the public didn’t like the idea of linkage either and valued the four year record of on-time budgets.

With the days ticking away to the budget deadline, the spending plan began shedding issues. Cuomo had linked the Dream Act, to provide college aid to children of immigrants, with an education tax credit favored by the Roman Catholic Church. Both items were scrapped. Also out of the picture: further raises to the state’s minimum wage,  and a property tax break for homeowners who pay too much of their income on taxes, as well as plans for 100 new charter schools.

As the issues dropped away, Cuomo tried to put the best face on the losses, saying all of the items were merely a statement of his priorities. He frames it as a statement of overall goals for the entire session.

“The conventional wisdom now is, if it’s not mentioned in the budget, you really don’t care about it,” said Cuomo. “So it’s become a laundry list in some ways.”

Cuomo  now says it was not his idea in the first place to load up the budget with more and more unrelated issues, he says he actually resisted the practice initially, but eventually succumbed.

The governor does admit that this year he risked “maxing out the limits of the system.”

Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle, who is close to Cuomo, says he doesn’t blame the governor for trying to stuff additional items into the budget.

“Every governor has overreached out of necessity,” Morelle said. “I think that’s what they should do.”

Morelle says governors often see their political capital ebb in a second term, but he say don’t underestimate Cuomo.

“Andrew is still, I describe him to people affectionately, as a force of nature,” Morelle said. 

Cuomo did win an ethics reform package (a slightly watered-down version) and he succeeded in a new teacher evaluation plan, though it will not be designed to his specifications.

Cuomo insists he can get many of the items dropped from the budget passed during the rest 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.