(Not) Talking Taxes in New York

Andrew Cuomo had many potential lines of attack when he decided to run for governor of New York last year, but he eschewed most of them. Cuomo--then the state's attorney general--chose not to rail against the state Legislature, where a number of rogue politicians had mucked up the works term after term. He did not follow in the footsteps of another former attorney general turned governor, Eliot Spitzer, who had portrayed himself as a champion of the people, touting his record of taking down big financial players who'd abused the system. Nor, despite the state's progressive history and largely progressive electorate, did Cuomo--a former housing secretary in the Clinton administration and the son of legendary Gov. Mario Cuomo--make a case for closing the state's budget gap by enacting a more progressive tax code as well as spending cuts the way that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the state next door, Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, did.

But Cuomo's victory, unlike Malloy's, was assured well before the November election (though Malloy won as well). The New Yorker's high popularity and lackluster opponent meant that he didn't have to court the traditional Democratic base. And so, Cuomo chose to target public-sector unions virtually from the start of his campaign. "We've seen the same play run for 10 years," Cuomo told The New York Times in an extended interview in October. "The governor announces the budget, unions come together, put $10 million in a bank account, run television ads against the governor. The governor's popularity drops; the governor's knees weaken; the governor falls to one knee, collapses, makes a deal."

Since he became governor, Cuomo has more than lived up to his promise (or threat) that he'd strike out at unions. One of his first actions was to seek a one-year salary freeze for state workers as an emergency action. The benefits were more symbolic than financial. The freeze augured a budget fight that would center, as he had vowed, on cutting public-sector payrolls as well as workers' pay and benefits. Cuomo also spoke of unions the way Republicans do: State workers, he proclaimed, were spoiled by overly generous benefits packages that were unfair to the common taxpayer.

Cuomo pledged not to raise taxes and actually allowed a millionaire's tax scheduled to expire in December to do just that. His budget, which the Legislature enacted, closed the state's $10 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that began in April entirely through spending cuts that dealt a brutal blow to nearly every state program, from education to health. He also capped the annual growth in state spending, which for many programs had been automatic. Yet the unions did not launch their customary huge ad war during the budget process--largely because they did not think they would win.

Shrewdly, Cuomo went hardest after unions many liberal New Yorkers feel do hold too much sway. He also publicized aspects of particular contracts that many Democrats believed did not serve the public. He wrested his first concessions from the state corrections officers' union, which agreed to a wage freeze, increases in the amount workers pay toward their health care, and an end to performance bonuses. Even more significantly, Cuomo responded to a report finding that prisons were operating at 88 percent capacity by vowing to reduce the number of prison beds across the state by 3,700, shutting down as many as six prisons and cutting prison-guard jobs. Unsurprisingly, he met resistance from the corrections officers' union, but he framed the move as a criminal-justice issue rather than a jobs issue. "If people need jobs, let's get people jobs," Cuomo said during his January address to the General Assembly. "Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don't put other people in juvenile-justice facilities to give some people jobs. That's not what this state is all about, and that has to end this session."

How could a good New York liberal oppose that?

Cuomo's proposed closures are still meeting resistance from the state representatives of the upstate communities that depend on prisons. Other changes were easier to make, including significant ones in juvenile-justice policy. The budget Cuomo passed shifted money from juvenile incarceration programs to more cost-effective community-based and treatment programs. It also gave tax credits to communities where the facilities would be closed.

Second, Cuomo offered a bill--once the budget had been enacted--that would change the seniority rules under which teachers are fired. Rather than leave in place the system of "last in, first out," as it's known, the governor opened a debate over using a merit metric to determine which teachers should go first whenever layoffs occur. In introducing the bill, he was postponing more immediate action in New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought quicker action on seniority rules. That positioned Cuomo as the slightly lesser of two evils for teachers.

Cuomo's nuances notwithstanding, the remarkable fact is that a Democratic governor slashed union benefits and spurned union support in one of the most solidly Democratic, progressive states (and the most highly unionized state) in the country. Cuomo had a wealth of other targets he could have taken aim at in the land of Wall Street. That he chose instead to go after the state's public employees testifies both to those employees' political vulnerabilities and to his own political ambitions--which look to extend well beyond the sidewalks of New York.

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