Everybody wins: Andrew Cuomo and the art of the effortless-looking budget negotiation

Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders. (Governor Andrew Cuomo, via flickr)
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ALBANY—On Wednesday, as the Capitol yawned its way through passage of the state’s $132.6 billion spending plan, Gov. Andrew Cuomo went on an insider radio show to explain why it was actually a big deal.

“It has not been easy, Fred,” Cuomo told New York Post state editor Fred Dicker, who frequently has him on as a guest. “I’m telling you the amount of hours, the physical exertion … It’s exhausting for me and I don’t do nearly what these people have been doing. I don’t think it’s easy, I think it’s a different dynamic in Albany recently—that in recent years, there’s a positive synergy … that builds on itself.”

But for all the talk of exertion, Cuomo's real accomplishment was essentially that he had made the state's historically chaotic and drawn-out budget process very boring. Gone were the drama of late-night sessions, threats of a government shutdown, hundreds of screaming protesters, advertising campaigns and last-minute blow-ups.

Instead there was praise and congratulation all around between Cuomo and the legislative leaders, over a budget agreement that was wrapped up with time to spare. (The deadline for passage is April 1.)

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How did Cuomo avoid the usual dramatic showdown? Essentially, he did it by staging out the drama in increments, early.

He fashioned his two most controversial budget proposals into an overnight blitzkrieg two weeks ago. He settled tax policy during another overnight blitzkrieg in December.

Beyond that, he has proven to be an adept haggler. His opening bids on various issues sounded almost Spitzeresque in the threat they posed on business-as-usual Albany and the parties that control each house of the legislature: He was going to take redistricting out of the hands of self-interested legislators, and make teacher-testing an absolute precondition to dispensing school aid, and give the governor's office the ability to transfer money from one governmental agency to another without approval from the legislature.

Then, in the end, Cuomo let the incumbents have their rigged-up redistricting, in exchange for a pension tier despised by unions that donate generously. Cuomo met in the middle over the allocation of school aid, the language allowing him to transfer money between agencies, and another sticking-point proposal, the creation of a health-insurance exchange.

Some of these accomplishments were more easily marketable as good things, on the substance, than others. But all of them, together, contributed to Cuomo's Getting Things Done narrative, which apportioned some glory to the two legislative leaders as well.

They were all winners, by a sort of circular logic, because they wouldn't have agreed to a deal on time if they weren't.

The subtext to all this was that Cuomo held a major trump card. A court ruled last decade that legislators can’t really amend the meat of budget bills—they can only increase the dollar amounts—giving the governor a stronger hand. But David Paterson, in arguably his most enduring legacy, figured out that he had the same power over emergency spending "extenders".

New York’s budget expires on March 31, but for years governors and legislative leaders would pass simple extender bills that allowed the bureaucracy to keep grinding until a real budget was in place. There were years when that was as late as August. Paterson realized he was the only one who could submit extenders, and that they didn’t have to be just simple extenders. Lawmakers were then faced with the choice of approving them or being blamed for a government shutdown, with all the accompanying pain and suffering.

“The threat of government shutdown and of having the governor cram things down legislators throat is real, and it forces legislators to negotiate more than they would normally,” said Ron Deutsch, a liberal advocate from New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness (which, by the way, called the budget agreement a “mixed bag”). "The governor has made clear that he's willing to negotiate, but that he's going to push them. I think he emerges as the real winner."

Cuomo barely had to make the threat explicit.

It was enhanced, no doubt, by the decision to split off a proposal for reducing pensions for new government workers, and instead yoking that to redistricting. Cuomo reversed his pledge to veto new district lines that legislators drew themselves in exchange for support for his pension bill (who had been pared down from its original form, but was still poisonous to labor unions and strongly supported by Mayor Michael Bloomberg), a constitutional amendment that will pave the way to legalizing gambling, an expansion of the DNA database supported by basically everyone except the New York Civil Liberties Union and changes to redistricting that will insulate the process from lawmakers—starting in 10 years.

The ability to control the current round of redistricting was a life-or-death issue for Senate Republicans, whose ability to arrange the district lines to their advantage has allowed them to cling to a majority in the chamber even as the already heavily Democratic state becomes more so. If Cuomo had vetoed their version of the district lines, like he had promised to do, a court would have stepped in and drawn maps that made more geographic sense and didn’t account for incumbent residency.

(Even months ago, it looked to me Cuomo was setting himself up to make a trade on redistricting.)

Redistricting was always the “glue” for this year’s agenda, as Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb put it; it just had to fit into the puzzle a bit early because those pesky federal judges set a March 15 deadline for progress on redistricting, and to have lines in place before the start of the political calendar on March 20, the result of another court order.

Because of this “bifurcation,” as Cuomo put it, the regular budget was easy.

Labor groups that normally fire on all cylinders were wrong-footed, and lobbying spending in January and February was low. There were ex post facto denunciations of the pension change, but, well, it doesn’t take a political genius to tell you that rallies are more effective before the deal is done.

The remaining gaps with the legislature were easy to bridge. Cuomo had hoped to peg $250 million of school aid in an account to be doled out competitively, but settled at $125 million after declaring his original number merely a “placeholder.” He proposed language that would have allowed him the ability to move money between agencies at will—why bother to even write a budget, then, legislators complained—but narrowed it to allow him to consolidate back-office functions, which, he claimed, was all he ever wanted anyway.

Cuomo had proposed to put a health exchange in the budget, but then said he’d do it by executive order. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his Republican colleagues had threatened to draw a line in the sand over such an enabling of Obamacare, the pariah of the national G.O.P., and screamed about the exchange one breath before insisting they had no plans to challenge Cuomo’s order. For which, incidentally, their support or action is not required.

No muss, no fuss. After the pension overnighter, lawmakers and their key aides even took advantage of nice weather for a weekend and essentially suspended negotiations. They’re scheduled to take the next two weeks off.

Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Times Union and the principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog.