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The Good The Bad And The Ugly

Following Gov. Cuomo’s first State of the State address, Metroland presents an issue-by-issue examination of his plans for transforming New York

by Kathryn Geurin on January 12, 2011

Education

What He Said

“We’re number one in spending but thirty-four in terms of results, that has to change. The current education funding goes out by formula grants, meaning there are no performance incentives in the grant process. A school district gets their numerical formula and that’s what they’re going to get, whether they do a good job, a bad job, it doesn’t matter; they get the same level of funding every year. . . . Our suggestion is when it comes to education, have two competitive funds that reward performance. One is a school performance fund . . . [and] a second competition for administration efficiency.” Cuomo also supports a consolidation bonus. All facets of the plan, he says, are intended to “change the behavior through the funding mechanism.”

The Good

New York State’s system of education funding needs to be examined, and the performance of our schools needs to improve. Cuomo is serious about reforming the system, increasing efficiency and raising expectations without increasing the tax burden.

The Bad

The model of performace-based school aid arguably exacerbates the performance discrepencies between low-income and well-funded school districts and their students. Cuomo’s plan will force schools to compete for $500 million in state aid, and the schools that need it the most may not make the grade. And with no plans to extend the “milionare tax” surcharge on housholds making more than $300,000 annually, deep, though yet unspecified, cuts are still expected.

The Ugly

Medicaid and education aid account for the majority of state spending, so when facing a budget shortfall and cries for tax relief, education aid is a tempting place to cut. But following record cuts to state education aid in 2010—1.4 billion dollars, bringing the total cuts to 9-percent over two years— many New Yorkers are concerned that Cuomo’s austerity budget and property tax cap will slash school funding too deeply.

The Alliance for Quality Education initiated an Internet campaign this week in response to the State of the State, calling on the public to e-mail the governor in opposition to the proposed budget cuts. “His plan to set aside $250 million for school improvement is a step in the right direction,” the statement reads, “but if he introduces a slash and burn budget at the end of this month it will send our children backpedaling away from on time graduation and college and career readiness.”

Environment

What He Said

“We’ve proposed a $100 million grant program that will go to local private sector partnerships that come up with the best plans to create green jobs, reduce pollution and further environmental justice.”

The Good

Though it was near the end of the speech, and was not given the prominence of the other, seemingly more pressing economic issues, the fact that the governor even mentioned the environment in the State of the State is a plus.

The Albany-based organization Environmental Advocates issued a hopeful-yet-neutral-sounding statement that they are interested in learning more about the governor’s program, sharing the hope that it will “bolster environmental protection while creating jobs and revitalizing our cities.”

Aside from what the governor outlined in the State of the State, Cuomo has made some moves to reassure green advocates. Most notable is the fact that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the Sierra Club’s Atlantic Chapter and Environmental Advocates all applauded Cuomo’s pick for Department of Environmental Conservation commissioner, Joe Martens.

The Bad

There was nothing in the speech about the contentious hydrofracking—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas—issue, which Environmental Advocates term the state’s “most urgent” environmental issue. There was also no mention of regulating greenhouse gasses, and the related issues of climate change and global warming.

The Ugly

What with the budget crisis and ethics reform, it’s hard to imagine environmental issues not taking a backseat—at least while former Gov. David Paterson’s executive order curtailing hydrofracking is still in effect.

Ethics Reform

What He Said

“We will propose a clean up Albany plan with real reform. This is not going to be a situation where the people of the state will have suffered for years and lost trust and now we’re going to give them a watered-down or half-baked ethics reform bill. They’re going to have real ethics reform. We’re going to end pay to play. We’re going to have full disclosure of outside income. We’re going to have an independent monitor.”

The Good

Cuomo insists that he will not settle for half-baked reform plans that do not require legislators to disclose their clients and conflicts of interest. He wants an independent watchdog organization to police the Legislature and the executive branch, and he even wants public financing of campaigns. “This could be the year that reform finally comes to Albany,” Blair Horner of New York Public Interest Research Group said in a statement issued after the State of the State address. “The governor’s State of the State address not only offered a road map for the comprehensive overhaul of the structure of state government, but also added a sweeping prescription to cure the ethical ills plaguing Albany.”

The Bad

Cuomo’s proposals on ethics are hard to complain about. The only major problem is that he hasn’t introduced the legislation yet. He is probably holding off so as not to appear to be Eliot “Steamroller” Spitzer and to give the Legislature some time to negotiate.

The Ugly

Cuomo hasn’t introduced a bill yet because he says he wants to negotiate with the Legislature to get their input on a major ethics overhaul. He told reporters earlier this week that he wants to work with the Legislature “in a collegial way.” But he insisted in the State of the State that this was a simple black-and-white issue. If the legislators are negotiating, it is quite likely, given their history, that they are negotiating for weaker reforms. Cuomo has promised that he won’t wait until after the budget process is done to introduce a reform package. The budget process could be long—and very ugly—so it is a very good thing that Cuomo thinks the Legislature can handle ethics and the budget at once. Unfortunately, given the Legislature’s history, his faith that they can simultaneously walk and chew bubble gum is misplaced.

Juvenile Justice

What He Said

“You have juvenile justice facilities today where we have young people who are incarcerated in these state programs who are receiving help, assistance, program treatment that has already been proven to be ineffective: recidivism rate in the 90th percentile. The cost to the taxpayer is exorbitant. For one child, over $200,000 per year. The reason we continue to keep these children in these programs that aren’t serving them but are bilking the taxpayers is that we don’t want to lose the state jobs that we would lose if we closed the facilities. I understand, I understand, the importance of keeping jobs. I understand the importance of keeping jobs especially in upstate New York. I also understand that that does not justify the burden on the taxpayer and the violation of civil rights of the young person who is in a program that they don’t need where they’re not being treated hundreds of miles from their home just to save state jobs. An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let’s get people jobs. Don’t put other people in prison to give some people jobs. Don’t put other people in juvenile justice facilities to give some people jobs. That’s not what this state is all about, and that has to end this session.”

The Good

The state’s juvenile justice system has been found to be violent and dysfunctional in all sorts of studies, including one by the federal Justice Department. In fact, the Justice Department threatened to take over the system if improvements weren’t made. So revamping the system and consolidating it has to be considered a step in the right direction.

The Bad

As Cuomo admits, a lot of small towns where these facilities are located will lose jobs. But thanks to decreasing inmate populations, these jobs are largely do-nothing jobs and a waste of taxpayer money.

The Ugly

Unions are going to fight this tooth and nail. They insist that the “safety” of our communities is at stake because violent youths will now be out on the streets or under guarded. Upstate legislators are likely to back the unions in an effort to save jobs by shipping downstate youthful offenders upstate and away from their families. This fight will not be pretty.

Marriage

Equality

What He Said

“We believe in justice for all, then let’s pass marriage equality this year once and for all.”

The Good

The governor’s brief but clear statement on marriage equality sustained the commitment he made throughout his campaign to make marriage equality a priority in his first year. Last year, Cuomo spoke at the Empire State Pride Agenda’s fall dinner, saying, “I don’t want to be the governor who just proposes marriage equality. I don’t want to be the governor who lobbies for marriage equality. I don’t want to be the governor who fights for marriage equality. I want to be the governor who signs the law that makes equality a reality in the state of New York.” His message on this issue couldn’t be more clear.

The Bad

Cuomo may have articulated his support of marriage equality, but his ability to get the necessary legislation passed waits to be seen.

The Ugly

Governors Spitzer and Paterson both supported the Marriage Equality Bill (S. 4401, A. 7732), which passed in the Assembly in both 2007 and 2009, but has been held up in the Senate, where the bill has been repeatedly tabled or rejected.

Marriage-equality advocates had high hopes in 2009, while the Senate was briefly under Democratic control, but the issue landed at the crux of the Senate coup, as Sens. Ruben Diaz (D-Bronx), Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn) and Pedro Espada (D-Bronx) leveraged their position in the slim majority in part to prevent a vote on marriage equality.

Despite the facts that Republicans regained control of the Senate, three pro-gay marriage Democrats lost to Republican oponents, and same-sex marriage oponents including Diaz and Krueger retained their seats following the November elections, Empire State Pride Agenda executive director Ross Levi made a statement to NY1 that “we are sitting here today stronger, in stronger position, after the election than we were before.”

“Come January,” said Levi, “There will be 14 new faces in the state Senate compared to a year ago, and advocates say they now have two more “yes” votes than before.

Medicaid

What He Said

Cuomo wants to utilize a Medicaid Redesign Team similar to one used in Wisconsin. The idea is to have the health-care industry work with representatives of Cuomo’s office to meet Medicaid spending targets in the governor’s budget. In other words, they need to come to the table and make concessions on reimbursement rates in order to meet the state’s needs.

“Remember,” Cuomo said, “this is not going to be a budget-cutting or trimming exercise. We need to redesign the Medicaid program. I can also tell you this. As the attorney general, I audited the Medicaid program for four years. Even without this budget problem, the Medicaid program needs a desperate overhaul. It is dysfunctional on many levels, so this process has to be done anyway. Our suggestion is to take a crisis management approach and put together a Medicaid Redesign Team. The Medicaid Redesign Team will start on Jan. 7. It will commit to reinventing in time for the April 1st deadline, it will assume the governor’s budget target for the Medicaid cut, and the exercise will be to find alternative ways to reach that cut. If we institute a cut in the normal budget process it is basically through reducing the reimbursement rate. Let’s see if we can’t actually find efficiencies in the program so we actually provide a better service for less money.”

The Good

New York spends twice the national average on Medicaid per capita and is second highest in spending per enrollee, and yet the state ranks 21st for overall health-care quality. Reining in Medicaid spending makes a lot of sense to a lot of people.

The Bad

Critics like the Commission on the Public’s Health System say that Cuomo has named too many health-care-industry heavyweights to the board—the same special interests that are looking at their bottom lines—and not enough patient/consumer representatives to serve on the Medicaid Redesign Team. “The governor was very clear in talking about not allowing special interests to dominate. But then he appointed a task force for Medicaid with the top special interests controlling it,” Judy Wessler, director of the Commission on the Public’s Health System, told The Wall Street Journal. “This is why we’re in this crisis, and he’s just repeating it.”

The Ugly

Cuomo’s 25-member Redesign Team has until April 1, the budget deadline, to come up with recommendations. Observers doubt that major compromises and concessions can be made in that time span. When budget season hits, if agreements aren’t made and Cuomo pushes for cuts, you can expect the fury of the health-care industry to be unleashed: ads attacking Cuomo as they did Paterson and Spitzer before him. Remember the commercial featuring the wheelchair-bound blind man who asked, “Why are you doing this to me?” of Paterson and his proposed health-care cuts early last year? The spot was paid for by Local 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and the Greater New York Hospital Association. Cuomo has pledged to wage a campaign of his own against special interests, so you can expect to see this all play out during commercial breaks if it goes south. If major Medicaid cuts do make it into the budget, expect to see more job losses in the health care industry.

State Employees

What He Said

“The costs of pensions are exploding, 1.3 billion in 1998-1999, projected for 2013, 6.2 billion—a 476 percent increase and it’s only getting worse.”

The Good

The governor has proposed a freeze on state employee wages as part of an emergency fiscal package. This, rather than layoffs, seems like a reasonable place to begin the discussion. CSEA president Danny Donohue, in his guarded response to the State of the State, said Cuomo “offered many ideas which we will consider carefully. We will agree with some and disagree with others.”

The Bad

The governor offered no concrete proposals for pension reform.

There is much potential for mischief if wage freezes and departmental consolidations morph into a discussion of widespread layoffs. The effect on the state’s ability to deliver needed services should always be first in everyone’s mind

The Ugly

Cuomo has made it clear that if the state worker unions don’t play ball, he will, as The New York Times reported in October 2010, “mount a presidential-style permanent political campaign” against them.

Taxes

What He Said

“We have the worst business tax climate in the nation, period. Our taxes are 66 percent higher than the national average. . . . The property taxes in New York are killing New Yorkers. Thirteen of the 16 highest taxed counties are in New York when assessed by home value.”

The Good

The state’s tax system is in dire need of reform, and Andrew Cuomo seems deadly serious about fixing it. Certainly the horror in the story he related in the State of the State, about how 81-year-old Monroe County resident Geraldine Sullivan had to get a job as a school lunch monitor to supplement her Social Security in order to stay in her home, is self-evident. Cuomo has long been an advocate for consolidating the myriad local governments that plague this state—tiny fiefdoms that survive, arguably, to provide make-work jobs for politicos. His plan to incentivize consolidation by offering local governments consolidation bonus money—50 percent of which could be redistributed as “direct property taxpayer relief”—is a good starting point.

The Bad

The new governor seems intent on getting a property tax cap enacted. The Business Council of New York immediately endorsed the cap, deeming it part of a Cuomo-led “path to recovery.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. In an editorial published a few days before Christmas, The New York Times argued that a property tax cap is “a blunt instrument that ends up punishing many of the taxpayers and communities in need of relief.”

In addition, Cuomo is committed to letting the so-called “millionaire’s tax” expire, adding to current and future budget deficits.

The Ugly

Predictably, the Assembly leadership tried to use this cap as a bargaining chip to get something they want, namely, the extension of rent control in New York City. The tax-cap proposal should be judged on its own merit.

Upstate

Revitalization

What He Said

“Upstate is truly [in] an economic crisis. In real GDP, from 2001-2006, upstate New York grew about 1.7 percent per year while the average in the nation was 2.7 percent. . . . Two million New Yorkers have left the state over the last decade.”

The Good

Cuomo’s plan calls for the establishment of “economic regional councils” that would partner with the State University of New York and the private sector to create “jobs jobs jobs.”

The Bad

Under the plan, there would also be competition for development money—which might be as much as $200 million—among regions and projects. How well this turns out will depend on how the councils are set up.

The Ugly

The economy upstate went off a cliff long before the Great Recession. Nothing could happen. After all, Eliot Spitzer promised a concerted effort to revitalize upstate, too.

PHOTO CREDIT: Martin Benjamin