Cuomo's Wedge

On Monday, Mary Fallin, Oklahoma’s Republican governor, signed legislation forbidding her state’s cities from enacting ordinances that set their own minimum wage standards or that entitle workers to paid sick days. Even in hard-right Oklahoma, citizens were collecting signatures to put initiatives raising the minimum wage and mandating sick-day on the Oklahoma City ballot. Fallin has now put an unceremonious end to such egalitarian frippery.

As an increasing number of cities have considered setting their minimum wages higher than those of their states, conservatives in state government have moved to strip them of that power. Most Southern states explicitly forbid their municipalities from indulging in such displays of egalitarian economics. In Washington, a Republican state senator has introduced legislation that would keep Seattle from raising its wage. In Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker is backing legislation that would strip cities of the right to enact living wage ordinances covering city-contract workers. (If passed, the bill would negate the living-wage ordinance in Madison and pre-empt the effort to enact one in Milwaukee.) And in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced his opposition to a bill that would give New York City the right to set a minimum wage higher than the state’s, effectively killing the legislation.

That’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, of course. But then, on matters economic, Cuomo is frequently closer to Oklahoma’s Mary Fallon than he is to most Democratic governors—or, for that matter, to the Democratic voters of New York.

In his three years as New York’s governor, Cuomo has shown himself to be a down-the-line social liberal, pushing through the legislature bills to legalize same-sex marriage and expand the state’s gun-control laws. Then again, it’s hard to find any blue-state Democrats who don’t back same-sex marriage and gun controls. But even as his party and his president have moved to the left on economic questions to combat the vertiginous rise in economic inequality, Cuomo has repeatedly shown himself to favor Wall Street’s interests over Main Street’s.

Last year, at Cuomo’s prompting, the legislature raised the state’s minimum wage in annual increments, topping out at $9-an-hour in 2016.  That’s hardly a munificent figure—the Democrats’ proposal for the national minimum is $10.10, a level to which Connecticut, Maryland and California have all raised theirs (almost—California’s is set at $10.00). Cuomo has entertained no further increases to his own state’s minimum, however, and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought the state’s go-ahead for the city to set its own standard—living expenses in the city being at least twice that of upstate New York—Cuomo responded with a flat No. (By state law, the city needs the state’s permission to set a wage of its own.) Cuomo’s argument was that wages should be uniform throughout the state to avoid a crazy-quilt of different standards, but by acknowledging that the state’s minimum, as of last year, should exceed the national minimum due to the state’s higher costs of living, he advanced the very argument that makes raising New York City’s minimum so screamingly obvious.

Cuomo’s opposition to higher minimums is of a piece with his aggressively anti-populist economics. In this year’s state budget, which he signed into law last week, he cut taxes on New York’s mega-banks and raised the threshold at which the state’s estate tax takes effect. He refused de Blasio’s request to allow the city to tax its wealthiest citizens—those making at least $500,000 a year—to establish universal pre-kindergarten classes within the city, and increased the number of charter schools the state allowed in response to de Blasio’s efforts to limit them.

Cuomo’s obeisance to money didn’t stop there. Earlier this month, he disbanded the commission he’d appointed to reform the state’s campaign finance laws in response to a wave of corruption scandals in the legislature. Proponents of reform had been pushing for the state to adopt a system like New York City’s, in which low-dollar campaign contributions get a five-to-one match of public funds. The law was key to the election of de Blasio and the new progressive majority on the city council. By abolishing the commission, Cuomo has strengthened the hold that big money has on his state’s politics.

Will New York Democrats stand idly by as their governor promotes Republican economics more ably than most Republicans? New York Democrats are a famously liberal bunch, and Cuomo’s attacks on other party leaders—he’s made enemies of de Blasio, Senator Chuck Schumer, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and most of the state’s Democratic electeds—haven’t left him with any residue of good will among Democratic elites. Like Republican Chris Christie across the Hudson from him, Cuomo governs by fear and inspires loathing. Whether that fear, and a sense of futility (Cuomo has already raised close to $20 million for his re-election campaign and Wall Street won’t balk and giving him much more) will suffice to deter the serious primary challenge that Cuomo merits remains to be seen. It’s late for a challenger to enter the race, but that challenger could be assured going in that there would be no need to drive a wedge between Cuomo and the Democratic primary electorate. Cuomo has driven that wedge himself. 

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