Scorecard on the first Andrew Cuomo budget

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Apr 14, 2011

The last Weekender column (March 31) promised that the next would provide analysis of the importance of both the process and results of the recently released Census. That column will be deferred until April 28 because in the interim, the state enacted its first on-time budget in five years, as predicted in The Weekender of March 17. (Despite this and many contemporaneous, previous and future self-congratulatory pats on the back, this column will continue to be called The Weekender and not be changed to “I Told You So”).

The enacted budget deserves a scorecard and bottom line grade because of its importance, but also because previous columns have discussed some of the new governor’s budget proposals, his related plan to cap local property taxes and The Weekender’s plea to his readers and himself to learn to root for the success of elected officials we dislike (Jan. 20).

In my 2010 book, “Journal Of The Plague Year,” I detailed the one budget enacted during Eliot Spitzer’s short and tragic reign as governor — a budget I had a small hand in shaping — assigning Eliot’s Executive Budget proposal the grade of A- and the ultimate enacted budget a grade of B-.

For the first Andrew Cuomo budget, my corresponding grades are B+ and B+. Andrew had less vision than Eliot but stuck to his guns much better, producing a significantly better product than his predecessor, once removed. The great triumphs of the Cuomo budget were the serious reductions in overall spending and in reduced allotments for bloated and wasteful programs like Medicaid and rational reductions to eliminate long-empty prison cells and subsidies for non-existing needs at teaching hospitals.

The budget’s on-time status, trumpeted loudly by the governor and legislative leaders and dutifully parroted in the press, is nice, but not nearly as important as advertised by them. It’s not as important as was the recent on-time federal budget compromise. And on time is never as important as a quality budget. But this was both, so kudos to Andrew.

A major defect in the enacted budget is the “everyone must suffer (almost)” approach, squandering the opportunity to prioritize certain things, education first and foremost. Another is its classic backroom negotiation among the executive and a handful of legislative leaders, preceding enactment by members, many who had not read the budget laws they were voting on. A third failure was the curious exemption of certain groups from the governor’s rallying cry that all New Yorkers must share in the sacrifice. Three groups spared the pain were trial lawyers, theological students and wealthy taxpayers. Guess which one of these three groups The Weekender doesn’t belong to. The governor not only insisted the wealthiest not merely not pay higher taxes, paralleling President Obama’s December 2010 surrender in preserving the Bush 43 tax breaks for families earning above $200,000 annually, but Andrew also made sure that New York’s wealthiest actually get a reduction in their taxes. This is stupefying and stupid. By way of background, the reader may want to consult the Sunday, April 10 business section of competitor New York Times for a review of the rebound in top level executive compensation in our nation and state. Trial lawyers were spared because the final budget bills contained no reform or cap of malpractice awards in the state. Theological students, God love them, got money for the first time under New York’s generous Tuition Assistance Plan, while “TAP” aid levels for all other students were reduced and every SUNY and CUNY institution, two-year, four-year, graduate and statutory (Cornell and Alfred) suffered steep cuts in the amount of state support per enrolled student. Andrew continued a Cuomo family tradition of paying little attention to the spirit of the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of “church and state.”

A plus for the governor and his budget was the decision to shelve, at least in the short term, his very popular and very bad idea of capping property taxes. That would have effectively prevented communities throughout the state from replacing the more than $1 billion in reduced state aid for public schools in order to maintain or improve the quality of primary and secondary education — our best investment in the state’s future.

Assuming this salutary reversal on the property tax cap was intentional, the governor failed to provide a comparable means to replace the nearly $200 million reduction in state support for its two public higher education systems, SUNY and CUNY. By failing to include a tuition increase, despite the fact that the chancellors, the trustees and virtually all the campus’ presidents in the systems want one and despite the fact that SUNY/CUNY tuition is half to a third of that charged by four-year colleges in comparable large states like California and Pennsylvania, the governor has effectively decided that the quality of these schools must decline. This will happen despite the willingness and ability of many upper middle class and wealthy families, who send children to the publics, to pay higher tuition and continue to do so under a long-term rational tuition policy. If that happened, the quality of public education would vastly improve and truly needy families and students would be held harmless for any increases. Everyone knows this, but the governor and the legislature continue to approach modest tuition increases and rational tuition policy with a no-nothing attitude and as if they were live grenades.

One final budget saving was scandalous and shortsighted. For the 12th consecutive year, New York’s 1,300 judges did not receive a pay increase. This ongoing tragedy, also fully explicated in “Plague Year,” is quickly sapping the state’s judiciary of many of its finest judges and embittering and impoverishing the holdovers. Modest raises would have amounted to less than $30 million in a more than $132 billion budget. The continuing failure to address this problem would suggest that New York’s leaders are “penny wise and pound foolish,” but in this instance the magnitude of the investment is separated from the measure of the harm by a multiplier vastly greater than this platitude suggests.

A final plus for the governor and all New Yorker’s in this budget is the declining influence and power of speaker Sheldon Silver and the Senate majority leader, who momentarily is Dean Skelos. Those offices and individuals had heretofore exercised far too much power. With much less of a mandate to do so, Governor Cuomo was able to do what Governor Spitzer promised but failed to do, with regard to the balance of power with the legislature and wider dispersion of power within the legislative houses. Good for Andrew and us. Although there is lots of room for improvement, especially with regard to education, overall nice job governor. Next up, the 2010 Census.



Priceless Cover

Priceless: The Case that Brought Down the Visa/ MasterCard Bank Cartel

Journal of Plague Year cover

Journal of the Plague Year: An Insider’s Chronicle of Eliot Spitzer’s Short and Tragic Reign