After his 2010 election, New York governor Andrew Cuomo defied political gravity for two years as he ticked off political boxes. Get chops as a budget reformer by persuading state workers to agree to a three-year wage freeze—check. Sign a gay-marriage bill to score points with liberals and young people—check. Promise to construct a new Tappan Zee Bridge to demonstrate that New York can build big—check. The public came to trust Cuomo; when he said that he had restored integrity and pride to the governor’s office, people agreed.
But everything disintegrated this year. “That hissing sound you hear is the air going out of Gov. Cuomo’s balloon,” Daily News columnist Bill Hammond wrote in June of the just-concluded legislative session. Cuomo is out of economic ideas. Both parties are skeptical that his push for upstate casinos will create jobs. His Start-Up NY program—tax-free zones around the state—is a gimmick that lets him avoid real tax reform. With New Yorkers’ minds on economic growth, Cuomo spent the session’s last days lobbying for “women’s rights” bills. He failed to enact ethics reform after a series of corruption indictments and convictions of state lawmakers. He has shied away from calling on Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the state assembly, to resign for covering up Assemblyman Vito Lopez’s sexual harassment of female staffers. He has reversed his pledge not to accept political donations from would-be casino entrepreneurs. By now, Cuomo looks like just another Albany pol.
Yet Republicans, despite controlling the state senate with the help of a few breakaway Democrats, have made zero headway. Dean Skelos, the senate’s majority leader, rubber-stamped Cuomo’s Start-Up NY and casino plans, though media and public skepticism had created an opening to ask some tough questions. The problem for the GOP may be that there’s too much to criticize. Party chairman Ed Cox gleefully castigated the governor for his silence about Silver; the GOP hit Cuomo early this summer for “failing to meaningfully address New York’s woeful tax, regulatory, and business climate”; but by focusing on everything, the GOP may wind up accomplishing nothing.
Republicans would be better served if they turned their attention to one major issue: Cuomo’s apparent unwillingness to help local governments control their costs as they stagger under the weight of unfunded mandates. At a downstate conference presented in June by the newspaper City & State, executives from Erie, Rensselaer, and Ulster Counties—two Democrats and a Republican—joined Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner, a Democrat, in pleading for help. Yet on this critical and politically promising issue, Skelos punted and waved through Cuomo’s “financial structuring board,” allowing the governor to maintain the fiction that he’s helping local governments.
The GOP leadership could make easing mandates on local governments the highlight of its autumn agenda. It could start with repealing the Triborough Amendment, which forces local governments to adhere to the terms of bad labor contracts even after the contracts have expired. Republicans should also push for a bill empowering local governments to set health-care premium requirements for their workers separately from their collective-bargaining agreements with unions—enabling the governments to increase the employees’ premiums as costs rise.
Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats should prepare a report on unfunded state mandates with an eye to proposing relief. One new senate member, Lee Zeldin of Suffolk County, seems eager to play a role in fiscal policy. Zeldin won election in 2010 by running against the legislature’s new payroll tax for transit, which harmed small businesses in his Long Island constituency. Zeldin managed to win a compromise that lowered the burden. In true Albany fashion, though, the deal didn’t fix the underlying problem—rising MTA labor costs. Instead, money from elsewhere covered the gap. Zeldin has shown some interest in addressing labor costs; in June, he told new MTA chief Tom Prendergast that he hoped to bargain with unions and achieve labor savings.
Pursuing these changes won’t help the Republicans win any public-sector labor votes, but it’s not clear what the party stands to gain by acquiescing to the governor’s increasingly illusory agenda. The GOP may as well find out: Do voters want a party that offers genuine, if modest, reforms, or one that goes along with the governor when he’s popular and scatters criticism from the sidelines when he’s not?