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Who Owns This Budget?

by David King on March 23, 2011

With little more than a week left until the state budget is due, groups from all over New York have poured into the Capitol this week to demand that Gov. Cuomo’s proposed cuts to education and health care be restored. And yet major newspapers report that it has been a quiet budget season.

What that means is that the tone of the ads against Cuomo’s proposed cuts has not been as vicious as it has been in the past. But the people are still there—you know, the ones who vote. Whether they are labeled “interest groups” or not, a lot of people are enraged at the proposed cuts to education and health care. And Cuomo is making it increasingly clear that he has no plan to listen.

Cuomo is openly talking about using budget extenders to keep state government running if the budget deadline is missed; this would force legislators to choose between his budget and shutting down the state. I predicted earlier this year that this would be Cuomo’s strategy to push  his budget through. Why? For one, Cuomo isn’t that interested in bargaining; his next election is three years away, plenty of time to build his image as a new conservative Democrat on the national stage. Legislators, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of time. They face an election next year.

Cuomo isn’t likely to budge much here because he has already made it clear that the people he is representing are business groups and the wealthy—the people who fund the Committee to Save New York, the group that is advertising in his favor. He needs to keep taxes down for them, improve the business environment and crack down on unions and public spending. He has no inclination to continue the tax on the wealthy or, as some have suggested, to tax those who make a million or more dollars a year to avoid cutting spending. No matter that studies have shown that the millionaires’ tax has not driven the wealthy from the state and that the measure has wide public support.

Cuomo’s cuts do not poll well at all. He does. But his cuts don’t. Cuomo is paying attention only to his own poll numbers. He told reporters on Tuesday that he is barreling ahead because he received a mandate from voters—a “mandate” for policies he had yet to reveal when he was elected.

“Really, with the extenders, it changes the equation,” Cuomo said. “In the old days, it was a different calculus, because if you didn’t reach an agreement, then it was Groundhog Day—everyone sat there day after day for long periods of time. . . . There was only one option: The three parties agree.”

“There’s a new option. It’s, the three parties agree, or, they agree to disagree in a very dramatic fashion, which is the governor does an extender budget, and if they really disagree they shut down the government. It’s an expeditious option, in many ways it’s a more clear option for the people: You really believe what you’re saying? You really don’t want to do it? I’ll send you a bill, an extender bill, you don’t want to do it, then don’t pass it, shut down the government and let’s take the case to the people,” Cuomo said. “I am confident in making the case to the people. Why? Because I did already. That was my campaign.”

And yet, there are all sorts of little quirks that have popped up in Cuomo’s budget policy that voters did not likely count on, or think they were voting for. The most interesting, perhaps, is part of the deal reached by Cuomo’s Medicaid redesign team. This particular part of the deal seems quite unrelated to Medicaid; it installs a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical malpractice suits. In other words, if you go for back surgery and the hospital staff forget to monitor your blood pressure while you are sedated and your blood pressure drops so low that your optic nerves die leaving you totally blind, you won’t be able to sue the hospital for anything more than $250,000 for the pain and suffering the mistake has caused you.

The cap is surely a relief to hospital heads across the state. In fact, a number of hospital heads sat on Cuomo’s Medicaid redesign team. Critics of the measure say that Cuomo simply cut a deal to get certain members of the medical community on board with his overall Medicaid cuts. They wonder—if malpractice costs hospitals so much—why the focus wasn’t on reducing malpractice at hospitals rather than capping rewards to those who suffered from it. The Cuomo administration has attacked advocates who raised issues about the deal. The Democrat-controlled Assembly has not made the cap part of their budget proposal, but the Republican-controlled Senate has made it part of theirs.

In the end, the only reason that Cuomo might actually want to reach an agreement with the Legislature is that he is thin-skinned; he’d rather not take the blame all by himself. After all, there are a lot of ugly things in his budget. A recent report from James Odato of the Times Union spells that out. Odato reported that the New York State Teachers Union was running a TV spot in which a kid said, “Hey, Governor Cuomo, don’t sacrifice our future for tax breaks for millionaires.” Cuomo didn’t like being singled out so; according to the head of NYSUT, Cuomo got on the phone and insisted that either all the leaders or none of them should take the blame for the cuts. NYSUT quickly changed the ad. “Albany” is the new generic target, not Cuomo.

Cuomo’s office denies Cuomo ever made the call.