Few will be spared in upcoming budget battle
The first thing the new governor has to do is to get the state’s fiscal house in order. That must happen immediately because in a year the state’s election cycle will start all over and if Andrew Cuomo waits until then, it will be too late. Cuomo is lucky because, as a political genius, he has rounded up the two most powerful publishing magnates in New York, Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman, the billionaires who, by ordering up editorials in the Post and Daily News, can make or break a politician. These two men will back Cuomo on his rush to fiscal austerity and will punish him if he waivers on his “New Democrat” principles.
Cuomo has to submit a budget that will make everyone who depends on government weep. We are talking about, among other things, class sizes in our schools, depletion of the state’s civil service ranks, pension and Medicaid reform. Not-for-profit agencies will suffer great reductions because the Legislature and its infamous member items will not be permitted the largesse of the past. If Cuomo wants to be president of the United States, he will have to convince the rest of the country that he means to be the bluest of blue dog Democrats. He’ll have to be ruthless. As the famous political operative, college professor and lobbyist Norman A. Adler said of Andrew in The New York Times, “He didn’t ream people out. He’d cut your legs and knees off while you were sleeping.”
So what do you do if you are a union leader in New York? You spend what dollars you have screaming that Cuomo is a sellout to the working people. You buy TV ads that show mental patients languishing in closed wards. You show crowded school rooms and a child with tears in her eyes because she doesn’t have books. This time, because union leaders’ survival will be at stake, the union PR campaign will be extremely tough. There is a lot of money left in the Cuomo campaign accounts. Thanks to his Republican opponent Carl Paladino, Cuomo didn’t spend what he might have spent in a tougher race. If he needs to, he’ll buy his own ads to counter those of the unions, and he’ll have those powerful newspapers behind him writing supportive stories that make light of the unions. Even The New York Times, which seems deeply suspicious of Cuomo, will have to go along. It isn’t as if they haven’t had to learn the hard way themselves about fiscal austerity and cutting back. The usual groups that descend on Albany in an annual pilgrimage will be told “no.” The union leaders will make a show of it, but they will know that as the ranks of their members are thinned, those who are out and who are the most furious will not get a vote. Only the ones left standing will determine the fate of the leaders.
As always, the people who are most dependent on government will be hurt the most. The truth is that these folks vote the least and will be asked to take a disproportionate share of the pain. The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will have a huge say in the federal budget negotiations and when blue state New York makes its case, it will be told to drop dead. Of course, real political courage will be in short supply. Shelly Silver will fight like hell for those in his Democratic conference who understand what the political consequences of the cutbacks in their districts will be. But even Shelly will know that the cupboard is bare and the most he will be able to fight for will be table scraps.
Cuomo will say — and mean — “No new taxes.” Shelly will fight for “revenue enhancers.” The line will be held and Shelly will have to compromise. Many people, including a lot of sacred cows, will be hurt. When the smoke clears, you will see a leaner, meaner state bureaucracy but you will also see closed parks, schools and rest stops. There is no way out.
Now Cuomo has to govern. In a strange way, he also got lucky because of the fiscal mess the state is in. Right now, things are really bad in New York state. There is a huge structural deficit. New York can’t print money like the federal government so the deficit has to be addressed. The Democrats know it, the Republicans know it, Sheldon Silver, the powerful Assembly Speaker knows it, and certainly Andrew Cuomo knows it.
Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 11/15/10