Halfway through what is likely only his first term as governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo has already compiled a record that makes him one of the state’s most effective governors in recent memory. He’s not been perfect – there was at least one significant lapse and other troubling actions – but on most of the big issues, he has been right where the put-upon taxpayers of New York needed him to be.
Who’d have thought it? Cuomo clearly laid out his agenda during his 2010 campaign, but for those who believe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it is unexpected to see him taking conservative positions that few would have predicted from the son of former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Or maybe not. Even during the administration of Cuomo the First, New York State was too expensive and too hostile to business, but by 2010, the policies of the past combined with new affronts to prosperity and the brutal impact of a historic recession made action necessary. Even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver seemed finally to get it.
Thus, Cuomo took office – without the support of most Western New Yorkers, who voted for Republican Carl P. Paladino, a local developer – perfectly positioned to fulfill the urgent promises he made to voters during the campaign.
He made a fast start. In his first budget, Cuomo and the Legislature produced a $132.5 billion plan that trimmed spending and avoided tax increases and borrowing gimmicks. It also closed a yawning budget deficit of $10 billion.
Later, Cuomo pushed through a property tax cap that gives New Yorkers a measure of relief from spiraling rates that punish all who live and work in this state. That was a critical development in the nation’s highest-taxed state, and one that would previously have been scuttled in the union-backed State Assembly. But things had changed and Cuomo came into office with enough political momentum to win approval.
On a social issue, he also negotiated a law authorizing same-sex marriage in New York. Its success required some Republican senators to rethink their opposition to what was a clear civil rights violation. One of those who did so was Buffalo’s newly elected Mark J. Grisanti, who risked his political career to do the right thing. Other courageous Republicans lost their seats in November’s elections, but Grisanti won a second term.
Cuomo also paid closer attention to Western New York than any of his recent predecessors. He pushed through a modified version of the UB 2020 plan designed to bolster the University at Buffalo and the regional economy, in part by moving the university’s medical campus to downtown Buffalo. He shepherded through a tuition plan that allows for regular, bearable increases rather than massive, destabilizing increases when the politics dictated.
More significant was his pledge to devote $1 billion to the economic renewal of Buffalo, long a stepchild to New York State – and an expensive one, at that, with taxpayers around the state helping to support City Hall. It was a gutsy move, with other cities predictably demanding their own tribute, but if Western New York thrives, the state will do better, as well.
This is happening because the man and the moment came together. Cuomo assumed office with a powerful political resume and a name that commanded respect. And he did so at a time when the state was finally ready to address the problems that Albany had for too long preferred to ignore.
Still, there have been stumbles, the most disappointing of which was his reneging on a promise to push for independent redistricting in the aftermath of the 2010 census. Little is more important to the taxpayers of New York than to produce competitive elections. As it stands, most legislative elections in New York are formalities, in which voters play the roles designated them by those who draw district lines. In that system, lawmakers get to choose their voters before voters ever get to choose their lawmakers.
The consequence is that for decades legislators have acted with impunity, giving away the taxpayers’ store to special interests that include labor unions and trial lawyers. Because of the rigged system, lawmakers had more to fear from those interests than they did from voters, and their votes demonstrated it, over and over.
Cuomo was supposed to change that, insisting upon an independent redistricting model in which party affiliations play no role in drawing district lines. But he backed off, leaving in place a frankly corrupt system that New Yorkers will now have to live with for at least another decade.
Cuomo’s administration has also been unusually secretive, communicating in untraceable ways and treating Freedom of Information requests cavalierly. Last summer, the administration began removing from public view key documents from his term as state attorney general. The administration contends the documents are legal “work product” that are not intended to be public; but they also relate to his role in an inquiry into the use of State Police for political purposes. The action is at least troubling.
These are not minor matters, but on the whole, Cuomo has been the governor that New Yorkers have needed for decades. He faces many more challenges in taming a spendthrift government culture – independent redistricting should be prominently among them – if he wants to leave a deep and lasting imprint on this state and to become the kind of New York governor that other Americans might consider elevating to higher office.