Cuomo Steps into the Lion's Den

A long battle over the budget is about to begin

On January 9, 1975, as he began his first term in office, Governor Hugh Carey, urging New Yorkers to brace for budget cuts and tough times ahead, declared: "The days of wine and roses are over."

Thirty-six years later, Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his debut budget address, urged New Yorkers to brace for cuts in services and difficult days ahead. He spoke less poetically but, in a Queens street accent, delivered the bad news.

Andrew Cuomo told legislative leaders and the people of New York that the state was at a crossroads and the actions ahead on the budget would cause pain but "this is the beginning of New York's comeback."

It was a business-like speech, delivered with confidence and what seemed to be a firm knowledge of the facts on which he would be taking future actions. He has reason to be confident. His poll numbers are in the 70s; he continues to press the Legislature for ethics reforms, a responsibility that rests solely on the Assembly and the Senate. He acts like a man in control.

The way he presented his speech was interesting. He had what amounted to two cheerleaders speaking ahead of him, his lieutenant governor and  budget director. They praised the boss highly and prepared the audience for the bad tidings.

The figures were stark, Planned spending on Medicaid and local school aid would be cut by roughly $2.86 billion dollars each, closing about half the 10 billion dollar budget gap. In one sense Cuomo broke with tradition. Usually, when one is elected governor, he shies away from attacking his predecessors. Cuomo did not hesitate to do so.

He said what amounted to "a special interest protection program" had been established by past administrations. "It's not about the industry of government," he asserted. "it's not about the bureaucracy of programs. Government is there to serve people."

He wants to change the formulas and regulations that determine government spending. He said he wanted to limit future Medicaid programs to the rate of inflation for medical services. He proposed similar action to hold the line on future increases in school aid.

The new governor expects to face a storm of protests from what he calls the special interests. But he made it clear: reform has to start now and he expects the Legislature to follow his leade rship.

Our government iis based on a separation of powers. And it's unlikely that Cuomo can accomplish his agenda without a bruising battle with the Assembly and the Senate. But his smile today seemed to project that he's ready for a fight. He said we were about to go "down the road to ruin" or "on the road to recovery."

Two veteran political analysts were impressed. Blair Horner of NYPIRG, a state reform group, told me: "I see his budget address as having two components. The first, his presentation. The second, the substance."

Horner says Cuomo "did a very good job on the presentation. But the details of where he would cut and how much are still unclear."

An expert on politics, Hank Sheinkopf, analyzed the speech this way: "The governor is very smart. He is keeping his word to the taxpayers with his pledge to impose a property tax cap, which enables state senators from suburban districts to stand up for the middle class. It also pressures the Aseembly to give on this issue. The public will believe he's with them."

But Sheinkopf points out: "It's only the first skirmish in what will be a long war over the budget. He needs to meet expectations. It's a tough job. We still haven't gotten down to the specifics: what will be cut and by how much? This is a confident guy. He got elected by a big margin. He controls his public relations. He is strenghened for the battles to come."

Cuomo looked good on his budget presentation. He has appointed panels to study various questions, such as how to cut Medicaid. He is like a lion tamer standing there in his crisp suit and tie ready to do battle with the lions and tigers of the Legislature. He will crack his whip and try to get them to perform.

He hopes the audience will continue to cheer him. But he has to watch his back.

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