F.A.Q.: How well did Cuomo do selling the new budget ‘savings?’

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Andrew Cuomo. (saebaryo via flickr)
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A conversation with Times Union political reporter Jimmy Vielkind about the governor's budget performance.

Josh Benson: I heard "shrieks echoed through the Capitol" as Cuomo gave his budget address. Did you hear any?

Jimmy Vielkind: Ha. No. That might be a bit melodramatic—though I'm loath to level such an out-of-character charge at the Post. Legislators usually say things like, "Yes, we know there have to be cuts. We thank the governor for his work and we will be reviewing his budget plan in the coming days and weeks."

Here, Cuomo put in a few litmus tests: a $1.5 billion, seven percent, cut to education aid and a $2.85 billion cut to Medicaid. So we were able to get a few better reactions than usual. But I was more interested in the way Cuomo engaged legislators. He gave this PowerPoint-aided address which was very, forgive me, by the numbers. No soaring rhetoric. Blah, blah, blah. And then at the end, he gave the legislature this speech, which I'm pretty sure I heard from my father a few times when I was like 16, but instead of take out the trash and mow the lawn, it ended with something like pass ethics reform because, ahem, you have no credibility.

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Josh: Well you talked about his balancing act between public performance and legislative persuasion. So he certainly will have appeared to whatever members of the public were watching to have been all business, and appropriately stern with the bubble-dwelling legislators about the need to get real. What about the other part: Does it even matter what the legislators (as opposed to the media and the public) thought of his speech, in terms of predicting their reaction to it?

Jimmy: Yes and no. It would matter if he came and really directly insulted them or unabashedly buttered them up. He came closer to insulting them, but he didn't really do either.

The point is that this is a multi-stage process, and we're nowhere near the "let's make a deal" stage. Hence the proformality. If that's even a word.

Josh: Well, it's not like we can tell anything from Sheldon Silver's classically inscrutable reaction anyway, right?

Jimmy: Right. But we can assume that he's not happy: NYSUT is howling at the $1.5 billion school aid cut.

Josh: I particularly loved his line that you quoted beforehand about numbers being in the eye of the budgeter, or whatever.

Jimmy: Thank you! So yes, these big cuts will not be appreciated by Silver, especially when coupled with the Cuomo-driven property-tax cap, passed Monday in the State Senate.

Josh: Meaning it comes down to the usual question of whether there is any connection whatsoever between public sentiment and the eventual actions of the Assembly.

Jimmy: Generally, Assembly Democrats were more open to criticizing Cuomo. I take one of our local guys, Assembly Majority Leader Ron Canestrari, as a good canary: He articulates what Silver hints at. Yesterday, he told me there was "nothing very palatable" in the presentation, and that he'd like to see the millionaires tax, quote-unquote, extended. So we'll see where this goes.

Were it not for the storm, I would think Cuomo would be in Geneva, or some other corner of the state, making his case to "the people" about those special interests with the flaming hair. If he had a PowerPoint slide for that, I'd say it'd be worth the drive.

But, expanding on the point about the Assembly and resistance from the legislature: Cuomo's not going to have a perfect ride in the Senate, either. Newsday had a tea leaf about how they're reacting to the budget so far.

Josh: Certainly, it was interesting that Dean Skelos called Cuomo's characterization of built-in budgetary increases "harsh." Aren't they supposed to be allies in this fight on government bloat, the Republicans and the fiscal-hawk Democratic governor? Don't we keep hearing from the likes of Michael Long and Ed Cox (and Michael Caputo, even) that Cuomo is doing God's work, from the conservative perspective?

Jimmy: We do. But the Senate Republicans didn't suddenly forget how to be parochial, even after two years in the minority. Newsday reported that Long Island's schools are getting hit hard in the education aid cuts. I know you grew up there.

Josh: Me and Dean Skelos!

Jimmy: so you can attest such a proposal is akin to kicking the Bills out of Buffalo for Upstate Americans.

Exactly. And nine of his merry band of senators. I spoke to one, Sen. Ken Lavalle, who wanted to make sure no one was treated "fairer" than the Island.

Josh: Excellent use of "fairer." Very purposeful.

Jimmy: Cuomo should take note.

So that complicates things. They're sympathetic to many of Cuomo's agenda items and, as Skelos said, they're happy there are no tax increases. But if individual members have to vote for something that screws their electoral chances, expect trouble.

Josh: Yes. They need more fairness first.

Jimmy: They might get a little help from Klavinuccilesky, the now-seceded Democratic quartet. But we'll see.

Josh: Who else is feeling particularly aggrieved right now? We have to assume that every constituency ("special" or no) with a stake in the budget was braced for the worst. But do you think any of them were genuinely taken by surprise by the extent of the cutbacks? Like the SUNY school administrators, for example? 1199? Transit advocates?

Jimmy: I think SUNY, if anyone. Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor, put on a brave face in her statement. But this signals a major shift. We, the Empire State, are now spending less than $1 billion to subsidize public higher education. It's kind of mind-blowing. (That's for the SUNY aid, I should note. There's tuition assistance and some other aid to CUNY.)

Josh: It is, as I believe you said before, a major and maybe irreversible shift in the state's willingness to pay for public education. Conceived of and proposed by a Democrat.

What were you most surprised by when you first saw the budget? Was it that?

Jimmy: Actually, no. From my perspective in Albany, I was surprised with how he dealt with the public employee unions. He's been talking tough and winding up to wield the ax. But he said they could negotiate the layoffs away. Now: the union leaders have a VERY different perspective. They're not pleased one bit. But after all the pummeling they've taken, I expected a harder line.

Josh: Interesting! So this was the one area, maybe, in which the "ax man" stuff may actually have been overstated beforehand?

Jimmy: Maybe. It all depends on where you're sitting. I hear the union's argument, too: $550 million is a lot to give back. Well, $450 million. ($100 million will come from attrition and consolidation savings.)

Josh: What recourse does Silver have in resisting things like that in this proposed budget? What are the tools at his disposal, other than his remarkable ability to resist the exigencies of public opinion?

Jimmy: It's tougher this year. His normal tactic is Entish objection to undue haste. But he knows that Cuomo watched David Paterson's little trick of ramming through the substance of his budget in emergency extender bills with interest. And he knows that Cuomo could do the same thing, much earlier than Paterson did. He also knows that he's got a lot of members who are angry and who see no need to cut so drastically when you can add in revenue items, like extending that millionaires tax. So I think the Assembly will effectively buy back some of the pain, so to speak, and take the heat for "raising taxes."

Josh: As much as we talk about Silver's proven ability to hold out against all manner of steamrolling, it surely can't help him that Cuomo is already showing himself to be more effective at marshaling public sentiment toward Albany than Paterson ever was. I mean, I think Cuomo's performance was very effective, in a way that has nothing to do with the slightly silly PowerPoint stuff. It is a commonly held view among people I consider to be smart about politics that Cuomo is somewhat less brilliant at soaring rhetoric than he thinks he is. (Maybe no one could ever be as brilliant at it as he thinks he is.)

But he is showing himself to be very effective in the role of tough-minded deliverer of affliction to the undeservedly comfortable. It's the role he's been preparing for for a decade! ("If you are vested in the system, you are going to find me disruptive," was what he told me in an interview a million years ago, when he was running for the Democratic nomination against Carl McCall.) And which he polished during his time as attorney general. How do you think he did, from a pure retail perspective?

Jimmy: Well. Let's go to Main Street in Olean and see who wins the debate over a 13 percent scheduled increase in education aide: someone talking about a court case mandating increasing state funding, or the governor, who's asking you if you've ever worked for a company where you were guaranteed a 13 percent increase. Again, outside the Albany bubble, that sort of math doesn't play. Which is exactly what Cuomo is counting on. And he's got air cover not just from conservative groups, as you noted, and but ground cover from the Committee to Save New York. Last week, they started going door-to-door.

Josh: Yep. There's plenty of time for outrage to be ginned up, by anyone with an interest in doing the ginning, about the fact that lots of people's lives are about to get more austere. But, as you've noted, Cuomo's done an extraordinary amount of preparation ahead of time to have a ground game in place to resist the inevitable union-funded onslaught.

Related, can you talk for second, as a member of the Legislative Correspondents Association and regular chronicler of the public-facing actions of this administration, about the job Cuomo did in anchoring the budget conversation? Coming out with the shocking revelation that perennial spending increases are built in to the budget process, and therefore that the cuts he was about to announce could only properly be defined as spending reductions?

The Republicans have done this for years, to great effect. But somehow the David Stockman rhetorical positioning was considered (understandably) to be more noteworthy coming from someone named Cuomo.

In any case, I'm not sure they could have done much better with the pre-spinning. Am I missing something?

Jimmy: No. not really. He put out exactly what he wanted to put out. And yes, he tried to change the entire tenor of the debate before it began. We'll have to see if he's able to maintain that line in the coming weeks.

Josh: Approval-rating prediction for, say, end of March?

Jimmy: That's a long way off. I think he'll be around 60 by the beginning of March. From there, it really depends on whether the legislature is getting a budget done on time, or is mired in a hopeless stalemate for the umpteenth time in recent memory.