ALBANY – In his first three years in office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has had his way with the State Legislature.
The governor successfully pushed spending restraint, a property tax cap and a teacher-evaluation system, issues that angered Democratic lawmakers’ liberal base.
Cuomo also got his way with gay marriage and stricter gun control, issues that angered Republican lawmakers’ conservative base.
Now, as he enters his fourth cycle of policy and fiscal deliberations with the Legislature this week, a question hangs: Does Cuomo still have his mojo?
The answer won’t truly be known until six months from now, when lawmakers pack up and leave Albany after their session. And what happens in this new session will influence not just Cuomo’s 2014 re-election plans, but also how prominently his name will remain in the mix of possible 2016 contenders for the White House.
A year after his 2013 State of the State address and its leftward tilts, Cuomo in 2014 is expected to try to forge a path back to the center, appealing both to upstate conservatives and liberals downstate and in urban areas. That is especially true with the state’s finances.
When he delivers his State of the State on Wednesday, Cuomo will tout that the state’s fiscal picture is such that it can afford a tax-cut package that could approach $2 billion. He already has signaled an effort to cut property taxes and taxes on business owners.
Cuomo also is expected to address failing schools, especially in urban areas such as Buffalo, and to again call for lawmakers to join him in approving a new set of ethics rules and ways to bring more transparency to political fundraising and spending.
But with liberals in his own party feeling empowered after the election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City, Cuomo will find himself walking a tightrope between those who want him to govern a diverse state more from the center versus those who believe that the state needs to pay more attention to safety nets and other ways to help lower-income residents.
Before Cuomo has even made his tax package public, some Democratic lawmakers and outside interest groups were lining up to defeat it, or at least trade it for items they want, such as a tax increase on millionaires in New York City to help fund a universal prekindergarten program.
And on the social policy side, the left will exert intense pressure on Cuomo to expand protections for abortions, provide more college financial aid for illegal immigrants and permit taxpayers to finance political campaigns in New York.
The evidence of a leftward social tilt was apparent over the weekend with a leak by Cuomo to the New York Times that he will now permit sale of marijuana for medical purposes.
Aiming to sway voters
As he prepares to sway voters so he can score a healthy re-election victory in November, Cuomo – who lost Western New York in 2010 – needs to close the deal with upstate voters. Despite all the attention Cuomo has paid to upstate – jobs and development deals for Buffalo, as well as wine and fishing industry promotions for rural areas – the governor still needs to more specifically define how upstate will be structurally reborn under his watch, said one Democratic insider.
“If you asked the average person in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse or Albany to articulate the governor’s vision for upstate, I don’t think they could,” said the Democratic Party insider with a long history of involvement in statewide campaigns.
Cuomo also faces new players this year.
The governor will likely have a Republican challenger – possibly Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino – criticizing his decisions and priorities well before the end of the legislative session in late June.
Sharing the political stage
And for the first time, Cuomo also will have to share the political stage with another Democrat holding an equally loud bully pulpit: de Blasio.
Cuomo’s political allies say the governor has already proven he can dance with both the right and left in Albany.
“He’ll balance the business stuff with the stuff New York has always been known for in terms of making sure the middle class is strong and a safety net is still in place,” said G. Steven Pigeon, a former Erie County Democratic chairman who advises Cuomo on Western New York political matters. “I don’t see any reason why this won’t be as successful a year as others.”
Will Cuomo endure any new pressures from the Legislature this year?
Assembly Democrats have already signaled a desire for a left-leaning agenda that poses some potential conflict with Cuomo. For instance, female Democratic lawmakers have vowed they will not settle for a women’s agenda package unless 10 key items are included, such as new abortion protections.
But Cuomo faces his trickiest mine fields in the State Senate, controlled by Republicans and a small band of renegade Democrats. Pressure has been mounting for months for Republicans to end what conservatives say are too-cozy relations with Cuomo. Privately, Senate Republicans say this is the year for them to show a new resolve, an assertion they also made a year ago before the start of the 2013 session.
The Senate Republicans’ diplomatic dance with Cuomo has helped fuel the increasingly combative ways of Edward F. Cox, the state Republican chairman. Although he kept quiet for much of Cuomo’s first term, Cox in the last half or so of 2013 began regularly and publicly bashing Cuomo’s moves. He has hit Cuomo on his failure to decide whether to permit haydraulic fracturing of natural gas, which Republicans say would create boom towns along the Southern Tier, and on tax policies, social platforms, regulatory climate and job creation.
“Andrew Cuomo is New York’s third Democratic governor in the past seven years. With only one session left in his term, he and his predecessors have failed to deliver the tax relief and regulatory reform that New York’s businesses need to create jobs and grow our economy,” Cox said last week. “Instead, he is only managing the decline of New York State as a center of global commerce.”
Healing bruised relations
The governor in 2014 also faces the challenge of mending relations with the Legislature, which were damaged after an anti-corruption panel he created last summer subpoenaed the outside employment and campaign records of some lawmakers.
Cuomo’s move created a personal and legal blow-back by many lawmakers who challenged the subpoenas. Even those who offered cooperation were privately angered by what they saw as Cuomo’s crossing the line of separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
State Sen. George D. Maziarz, a Newfane Republican, acknowledged he is more optimistic than most of his colleagues about the coming session and legislative relations with Cuomo.
“We need each other. He needs us. … I think we’re in this together,” he said of the Senate GOP’s ties with Cuomo.
Addressing minority agenda
Still, Maziarz, who has warm relations with the governor, said he does not see how Cuomo gets the Senate Republicans to budge on bringing bills to the floor that they oppose, including taxpayer-financed campaigns and new abortion protections.
Whether Cuomo can control the agenda in the Legislature as much as he has in the last three years will be a measure to judge his 2014 success.
Clearly, though, in an election year, one of his chief goals is simple: no surprises.
Twelve years after he sought to beat H. Carl McCall in McCall’s quest to become the state’s first black governor in 2002, Cuomo is still working to build relations with minority lawmakers.
This year presents Cuomo with challenges to deliver for minority legislators, who will push for traction for their agenda that includes providing state aid for college expenses to children of illegal immigrants, relaxing marijuana-possession laws and tying the minimum wage to the inflation rate.
“My hope is we’ll continue to have a good working relationship with the governor and that he’ll continue to be responsive to the things we bring to his attention,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara, a Brooklyn Democrat who is chairman of the politically potent caucus of 44 black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and Asian-American lawmakers.
Members of the caucus have expressed concerns that Cuomo’s looming tax-cut package will eat into spending on programs designed for poor New Yorkers. Last month, Camara said he was “adamantly opposed” to the idea of a $2 billion tax cut for property owners and businesses.
Last week, Camara said he will listen to the specifics of Cuomo’s ideas when unveiled in the state budget plan in a few weeks.
“Who’s going to say ‘I’m opposed to giving taxpayers relief?’ ” Camara said. “The equation always goes back to the numbers and how to do it, and does it have any adverse impact on poor communities? That’s the fundamental question.”
Camara believes that de Blasio’s election in New York City helped make it easier for a progressive agenda in Albany, which he defined as the notion that “government should do everything in its power to help people in need and work to help people as opposed to sitting on the sidelines.”
‘People feel emboldened’
Camara said there is “very strong resolve” within the minority caucus to get major elements of their agenda not just proposed in Cuomo’s State of the State, but signed into law.
“I think there’s a lot of energy inspired by the New York City election. People feel emboldened that the voters agree with us,” he said of the group’s policy and fiscal agenda.
Camara believes that Cuomo’s biggest obstacle this year will be Republicans and the handful of Democrats who control the Senate. He noted last year that the Senate, despite having the votes, failed to join the Assembly’s and Cuomo’s call for such efforts as decriminalizing marijuana possession.
“The question is,” Camara said, “will they be obstructionists again?”