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Sniping between Cuomo, Senate Democrats as budget deadline nears

J. Stephen Conn

Budget talks are intensifying in Albany as the deadline nears, and they are revealing tensions and divides between Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the all-Democratic State Legislature.

Cuomo began the week with a list of items that he said he needs in the state budget in order for him to agree to it.

They include a property tax cap, criminal justice reforms and a congestion pricing plan for parts of Manhattan to help pay for fixing public transit.

And Cuomo, in an exchange with Spectrum News reporter Nick Reisman, said he won’t accept any changes to his proposal to make the temporary property tax cap permanent.

“No, no, no,” the governor said.

“Would you like to expand on that?” Reisman asked.

“No,” the governor replied.

The governor’s remarks annoyed the Democratic leaders of the Legislature, who say the spending plan should be worked out amicably between the two equal branches of government.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie bristled when asked by reporters about the governor’s list of requirements.

“I just don’t know how helpful it is. I’m not standing here drawing lines in the sand that I have to have ‘x’ in order to have a budget,” Heastie said. “I don’t think it’s fair when you have to talk to two other parties to draw lines in the sand.”

Some advocates for public education funding, including the teachers union, want to end the tax cap, and local government leaders have asked for more flexibility.

The cap is set at 2 percent, or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Some government leaders and the New York State School Boards Association are asking for a straight 2 percent per year cap, even in years when the rate of inflation is at or near zero.

Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she’s open to talking with opponents of the tax cap about making some changes to the measure.

“And if there is something that they can collectively decide on, that they feel they need to advance, then please come and I’ll certainly listen to it,” Stewart-Cousins said.

She said if the tax cap is made permanent, lawmakers need to be certain that it’s something that’s going “to work.”

Cuomo also said the Senate and Assembly Democrats were far apart on legalizing the adult use of marijuana and criminal justice reform, including an end to cash bail. Cuomo said legal cannabis is likely out of the budget, but he still wants the criminal justice reforms to be part of the spending plan.

The legislative leaders say that’s a “mischaracterization,” and that they have been working to resolve differences on those two measures.

The competing narratives come as Cuomo, in recent weeks, has repeatedly taken jabs at Democrats in the Senate, saying they are inexperienced at governing. Cuomo spoke on Albany public radio station WAMC on Tuesday.

“The politics is easy: ‘I support legalizing marijuana. Yay.’ OK, everybody claps,” Cuomo said. “Now, how do you do it? Now you have to govern as opposed to just do a bumper sticker political slogan.” 

Stewart-Cousins, who is the first woman and African-American woman to lead the Senate, said she’s perplexed by Cuomo’s comments. In the first months of the session, she said, the Senate passed a number of bills that are also the governor’s priorities, including strengthening abortion rights and stricter gun control measures.

“I think we’ve done a great job,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I’m thinking it’s SDDS — ‘Senate Democratic Derangement Syndrome’ — at this point.”

The governor’s senior adviser, Rich Azzopardi, replied with a barb of his own.

“I looked it up, and ‘Senate Derangement Syndrome’ is caused by hyperpolitical behavior overcoming basic government responsibility,” he said. “The cure is simple; fix the Amazon agreement you blew."

Cuomo has been feuding with Senate Democrats over Deputy Senate Leader Mike Gianaris’ opposition to the now-defunct Amazon headquarters proposal in Queens. Amazon pulled out of the deal on Feb. 14, citing local opposition to the project.

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.