NY Legislature, Cuomo May be Headed to Collision

Now begins Albany's notorious backroom horse-trading, part of the process that legislators and Cuomo as candidates vowed to reform as a way to end years of dysfunction and partisan gridlock

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    AP

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo is putting his popularity and his early record on the line as never before as the Legislature digs in for the first time over issues that will affect New Yorkers for the next 10 years.

    The Democratic governor is insisting the Legislature adopt a less expensive pension system for future public workers. He says the reform supported in the polls is "one of the seminal clashes of this budget and of my administration" because taxpayers can no longer afford the traditional pension for the next generations of state and local public workers.

    Yet the Senate Republican and the Assembly Democratic majorities presented 2012-13 budget proposals Monday without Cuomo's pension proposal, which is strongly opposed by public worker unions. They've also released new proposals for the political boundaries that will define election districts for the next decade, with few changes to the original plans that Cuomo opposed.

    Now begins Albany's notorious backroom horse-trading, part of the process that legislators and Cuomo as candidates vowed to reform as a way to end years of dysfunction and partisan gridlock.

    Both chambers say negotiations continue on the redistricting deal needed by about March 15 to avoid court intervention, and the budget deal due by April 1.

    "The bottom line is, we are committed to pension reform," said Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate's Republican majority.

    Late Sunday night, the majorities also released their final proposals for redistricting, with only minor changes to election district lines compared to an initial proposal that Cuomo called wholly unacceptable and promised to veto. Good-government groups say the majorities want to continue a tradition of distorting lines to protect incumbents and majority power for the coming 10 years.

    Redistricting is critical for the Senate Republicans, who hold a 32-30 majority going into the fall elections in the blue state.

    Legislative leaders and Cuomo say they support a constitutional amendment to require an independent panel, beginning with the 2022 redistricting. But the Legislature's proposal would still give lawmakers the final say, and Cuomo has recently noted redistricting is ultimately a legislative power.

    "We've made dozens of changes to the original maps, virtually all of them based on public input, and have advanced a constitutional amendment that would achieve historic reform of the process," Reif said. "As a result, this is an even better reapportionment plan."

    That constitutional amendment, however, would still give the legislative majorities the final say over an independent panel. If the constitutional amendment process fails, then a proposed law that would kick in that requires independent redistricting, but could be overturned by a future Legislature.

    Cuomo has moderated his hard line after pledging with nearly every legislator during the 2010 elections to make sure redistricting was done by an independent panel. Now Cuomo says he will veto "hyper political" redistricting plans without saying what that means, other than he'll know it when he sees it. Cuomo has also said the issue is between the Legislature and the courts, which could ultimately redraw the lines.

    The issue is dividing good-government groups.

    "It's a question of do you accept something good and a reform or do you hold out for an ideal occurrence that will never happen?" said Dick Dadey of Citizens Union, a position supported by the League of Women Voters. He noted the Legislature never even introduced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer's redistricting reform that would have taken the process away from the Legislature.

    The Legislature and Cuomo, however, haven't followed the 2007 budget reform act that was to make that process more accountable, public and timely.

    "I think we in this state have lost track of the fact that the Legislature is supposed to work for us, that reform is not what the Legislature is willing, grudgingly, to put up with," said Susan Lerner of Common Cause NY. "If what they are willing to do does not satisfy the requirement of the public, then it is incumbent on us to say, 'Not good enough, do it again better.' And that's what the governor's veto can do."

    The New York Public Interest Research Group also opposes the measure, saying it doesn't adequately protect against more partisan redistricting to benefit majorities.

    On Monday, Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said the governor requires "better" lines than those proposed a month ago, a constitutional amendment, and a law in case the Legislature fails to vote for the amendment.

    Cuomo holds a trump card thanks to a legal provision discovered by his predecessor, Gov. David Paterson, that empowers the governor to enact policy in emergency spending bills if no state budget is adopted by April 1, the start of the fiscal year. On Monday, Cuomo again said he will put his pension proposal in an emergency spending bill, forcing the Legislature either to accept it or shut down state government for a lack of cash.

    That, however, could to return Albany to the days of dysfunction, a label Cuomo and lawmakers facing re-election this fall want to avoid. It is an end game lawmakers and Cuomo don't want because it could wipe out much of the political capital and cooperation they built over Cuomo's first 14 months in office. Albany had been marked by bitter partisan gridlock in the Senate and political scandals throughout government after Spitzer, a once powerful reformer, resigned amid a prostitution scandal in March 2008.

    For New Yorkers, the issues go beyond political power plays. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as well as business groups blame much of local property taxes, already among the highest in the nation, on the cost of employer contributions to guaranteed public pensions. Cuomo wants benefits reduced, abuses such as building up overtime to pad pension checks ended, and an optional 401(k)-like retirement plan for future public workers to avoid tens of billions of dollars in public spending over the next decades.

    Lawmakers, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and union leaders say Cuomo's proposal is an assault on the middle class, creating a retirement plan inadequate for future blue and white collar workers and some police and firefighters who will be the backbone of New York's future.

    As for redistricting, good-government groups warn New York voters could see less state aid if they live in a district served by a minority party legislator and could also have less of a voice in legislation.