I hope people “crushing” on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo were paying attention to the news today. The New York state budget is past due — the deadline was midnight — though this afternoon Cuomo said he’d reached a tentative deal with lawmakers. Under that deal, cuts to Medicaid are still on the table. You’re reading that right: In the middle of a pandemic, Cuomo is looking to balance his budget by cutting health care.
His original proposal, pre-coronavirus, was to cut at least $2.5 billion in Medicaid spending. That was already bad news, but now any change in the Medicaid system jeopardizes New York’s ability to get as much as $6 billion in federal funding from the coronavirus aid package that Congress recently approved.
“We can’t spend what we don’t have,” Cuomo said, justifying the proposed cuts. “If money comes in during the course of the year, we’ll spend it.”
One way to get money would be by raising taxes on the wealthy. Activists and progressive lawmakers have been lobbying for a wealth tax to raise more funds for housing, school aid and health care. We’ve also been pushing for an annual pied-à-terre tax on second homes more than $5 million. But those taxes aren’t in the budget. Why upset deep-pocketed real-estate developers or the 100 or so billionaires who live in New York when we can just deny public schools their yearly budget increase of 4%, or roughly $1 billion?
Also tied up in the budget negotiations is Cuomo’s insistence on a rollback of the bail reform that’s only been in place since January. The elimination of cash bail for all misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies was meant to address the fact that poor people — especially black people and other people of color who are more frequently targeted by police — were spending years behind bars without ever being convicted of a crime while wealthier people who could pay up wouldn’t necessarily spend the night. The case study for this inequitable system was Kalief Browder, who was about to turn 17 when he was accused of taking a backpack in 2010. He insisted on his innocence but wound up spending three years in Rikers — two of those in solitary confinement — only for the charges to be dropped. Two years after his release, he died by suicide.
Cuomo was proud of bail reform when it first passed, but in the wake of police complaints and fear-mongering by local media, he decided to undo it all. Keeping people in jail is expensive: Last year, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an analysis showing New York was spending a record $337,524 to incarcerate one person for a full year, or roughly $925 a day. And that was before the chief physician at Rikers said the spread of COVID-19 is beyond control, calling the jail a “public health disaster unfolding before our eyes.”
Let’s review. Here are Andrew Cuomo’s budget strategies:
- Don’t raise revenue by taxing the ultra-wealthy.
- Don’t raise revenue through an annual tax on wealthy people’s secondary homes.
- Do increase spending on jails during a massive outbreak of illness.
- Do deny an annual increase in aid to public schools.
- Do cut billions from health care.
In addition, Cuomo would be authorized to withhold certain state aid payments to local governments if the coronavirus hurts tax revenue worse than expected. He’s ready, willing, and able to cut more! As long as his wealthy campaign donors don’t have to suffer. State workers can suffer instead: 120,000 of them didn’t get their paychecks this week. The Office of the State Comptroller had been warning since December that the budget would either need to be passed by deadline or an emergency appropriation would be required to meet payroll. Neither happened — and today Cuomo, bizarrely, blamed the comptroller’s office.
So stop it with “Cuomo for president” — especially if you’re not from New York and/or the only thing you know about him is that he puts on a good show for television cameras. Like I said last week, I do understand why that performance is appealing. As media watch group FAIR puts it:
“Yes, he is projecting both empathy and competence in a way Trump never will, filling a leadership void that people desperately need filled at the moment. But particularly in times of crisis, when executive power tends to expand dramatically, media should be holding the powerful to account, not settling for “better than Trump.” And there is plenty to hold Cuomo to account for.”
I’m holding him to account too, dammit, no matter how many new fans on social media say, “We should all support him in this moment.” We don’t work for him. He works for US! If he wants support during the pandemic, maybe he should cancel rent — as he’s been asked to do — rather than granting only a 90-day moratorium on evictions. Maybe he should put an end to his relentless, petty feuding with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, rather than delaying a shelter-in-place order by two days just so de Blasio didn’t get the credit.
We’re already suffering the consequences of an electorate who voted for a lying blowhard who made for exciting TV. Thousands of people are likely to die because of Trump’s mishandling of COVID-19. Is Cuomo better than Trump? Well, he’s got relevant experience. He can string words and sentences together. Basically, he’s not an incompetent embarrassment in addition to being power-hungry and easily purchased, but he’s definitely power-hungry and easily purchased. Whenever you feel your emotions getting the best of you, review the budget bullet points above and reflect upon the morality of health-care cuts in the time of coronavirus.
Notes: Non-New Yorkers might be wondering why something like bail-reform rollback has come up during budget talks. In 1927, voters gave the governor extraordinary powers over the budget and limited the ability of the legislature to make any amendments. This has been supported in state courts ever since. Any governor is highly motivated to pack whatever legislation he can into the budget process. As this article from 2010 (the year before Cuomo took office) said, “… even the weakest governor can become formidable by effectively wielding New York’s executive budget laws.”
For further background on Cuomo’s longtime preference for austerity budgets that cut health care costs rather than raise revenue for wealth taxes, read:
- 2019 article about hospitals warning of the impact of budget cuts
- 2019 Crain’s article: “Cuomo walks back $550 million in promised health care funding”
- 2016 New York Times editorial: “An austerity plan that would punish the city”
- 2014 editorial warning that Cuomo’s planned closure of state psychiatric hospitals would push the severely mentally ill into “jails, shelters, prisons, and morgues.”
- 2014 New York magazine article that mentions Cuomo’s tax cuts for corporations, budget cuts for social services, and presidential ambitions.
- 2011 New York Observer article: “Cuomo unveils austerity budget”
- 2011 New York Times article about planned budget cuts to Medicaid (plus the loss of matching federal funds) and schools
UPDATED, THURSDAY, APRIL 2, TO ADD: Gothamist has a story that lays out who, exactly, is hurt by this year’s proposed budget; the extraordinary ways New York’s governor uses a budget to force through legislation; and the secretive way the budget is created. These two paragraphs are key:
In fact, the budget dilutes major criminal justice reforms passed last year and abandons legalizing marijuana, gives the executive branch extraordinary authority to slash funding for municipalities without raising any taxes on the wealthy, enacts substantial cuts to Medicaid, and creates a public campaign financing system that threatens the survival of third parties in New York—including the one that is most critical of Governor Cuomo.
For years, advocates for government transparency have criticized the secretive way that New York’s budget has been created: the governor creates a framework, and he and the two legislative leaders hash it out, often cramming in consequential legislation that has little to do with state finances without allowing for any real public debate.