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Cuomo a hands-on leader, but New Yorkers pay the price

Sunday, February 2, 2014
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Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration isn’t quite causing traffic jams on the Dunn Memorial Bridge, but if you thought our friends to the south were the only ones with an extremely hands-on governor, look again.

Cuomo has had a reputation, going back to his days as attorney general, as a bit of a micromanaging public official. As governor, this trait has moved beyond mere style and crept into his policy proposals and general issue advocacy.

Two issues in the news lately — education funding and casino siting — highlight this now better than ever before.

Let’s start with public education. Cuomo championed 2 percent local property tax caps early in his term — tax caps that could, incidentally, only be overridden by a local vote of 60 percent or more if communities decided they needed the money to fill the hole left by state education cuts.

Not satisfied with this decidedly undemocratic restriction on local governments, Cuomo has now called for a freeze in property taxes for two years. But not to worry — in this year’s budget, the state would meet the fiscal difference for the first year of two. However, to receive money in that second year, local communities would have to enact a state-approved plan to share or consolidate their operations on a countywide basis; these plans would have to save significant amounts of money over the next few years in administrative costs.

Tacked onto his budget, too, is a variety of proposed education programs, including a pre-kindergarten program designed to sidestep New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s own similar plan that involves taxing rich people a little bit more. Cuomo’s plan doesn’t add any new taxes; it just provides the money via the state’s general education fund.

The governor’s opinion on the matter is simple: “Why do you [de Blasio] need a tax for a service we’re going to fully fund?” The question could just as easily be reversed: “Why does Cuomo need to fully fund a service that de Blasio is fully ready to fund instead?”

The answer reveals something endemic about the governor’s office: Cuomo is apparently uncomfortable with a local administration like New York City having the power to handle itself.

De Blasio wants power over the funding so it can’t be removed, unnecessarily tweaked or used as a bargaining chip later on.

Given the history of education funding in New York state, this isn’t some out-of-left-field concern. One recalls the not-yet-dead “gap elimination adjustment,” a “temporary measure” enacted in 2010 that saps local school budgets in pursuit of deficit reduction. Note that this deficit does not exist anymore. So why not give the financial power back to the school districts?

Then there’s the controversy over casino siting. A plan to legalize the construction of casinos in various parts of the state was approved by a solid majority in November. The question is: Where to put them? Or, perhaps more germane: Where not to put them?

It’s easy to vote for casinos when they’ll be built somewhere else. Some communities don’t want casinos in their neighborhoods, even if the governor’s office and his appointees really, really want to put them there. The fear is that it could negatively affect the character of where they’re placed and/or have a detrimental impact on business, police enforcement and so forth.

Unfortunately, the law (as written) doesn’t allow for these communities to reject casino construction in their hometowns. Saratoga County, for instance, voted 54 percent against casino legalization — and it’s said to be on the shortlist for where one of the new ones might go up.

A bill going through the state Senate would fix this problem, requiring the consent of the local government before breaking ground on a gaming facility. The governor’s office has expressed opposition to this measure, saying it would be politicization of the process.

In other words, a committee of the governor’s appointees choosing to throw up a casino — that’s not politics. Local communities saying, “Hey, wait a minute, maybe we don’t want this” — that’s politics.

Education and casino development are just two of the more recent issues with which one can illustrate this theme. All you need to do is look back and you find a large collection of these little moments:

-- In 2011, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman fought off an attempt by the governor’s office to usurp his authority to investigate and fight financial fraud.

-- In 2012, Cuomo tried to push language in the budget that would grant him the power to move money around the various state agencies without legislative approval. This was met with stiff resistance, and he was forced to negotiate a more restrictive framework.

-- In 2013, when it seemed every day there was a new corruption scandal, Schneiderman wanted jurisdiction on election law corruption cases. Cuomo opposed it — a reversal from his stance when he was in that office. He said he’d be able to find someone who could the do the job instead.

Now, all of this isn’t an argument against statewide laws, standards or the like. It’s not even an indictment of top-down governance in itself. This is an argument against especially gratuitous top-down governance — where local communities absorb substantial costs for the sake of outside interests or agendas, or where power is consolidated in the hands of one particular centralized office rather than the legislature, the A.G.’s office, public agencies or communities.

It’s certainly been a while since the executive in New York state has had any real semblance of power — and it’s a good thing that the governor’s office isn’t being run roughshod by the other branches.

But maybe we’re taking it a bit too far. Indeed, it’s almost as if Cuomo is more interested in presenting a caricature of big-government liberalism than anything else.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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