Andrew Cuomo had a real good act going during his budget speech
on Feb. 1. As though it was his first time ever examining
a state budget, he declared that he had found the secret!
Medicare and education aid have built-in cost escalations
that then lead to increased spending and a higher budget deficit
every year. Cuomo acted like he had just exposed years of
The janitor at the capitol knows the budget works this way,
so the idea that the child of a multiple-term governor, who
worked on his father’s campaigns and served as attorney general
had just found out was a bit of a stretch. Yes, Medicaid and
education costs go up each year. More people join the roles
of Medicaid and neglected school districts need more money.
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit resulted in a judge’s
ruling that the state must commit to providing more aid to
urban schools, but the state has put the increase off year
Nevertheless, Cuomo’s feigned naiveté was effective; it hit
home the fact that Albany’s budget process is built on increased
spending. It’s designed for the good times, and simply tries
to ignore the bad.
Cuomo continued to sell his fairly harsh cuts to education
and health care pretty well, keeping a somber tone and acting
as though he was the only man in the room tough enough and
sensible enough to do what needs doing.
But then, in my humble opinion, he made an embarrassing gaffe
that brought the arc of his carefully juggled speech, which
balanced faux nativity with statesman-like concern, to an
ugly and abrupt collapse.
It was the phrase “Jerry Jennings Protection Program,” that
ended the political ballet for me; it pulled me kicking and
screaming back to reality. Cuomo, discussing how local governments
outside of New York City will face a two-percent cut in state
aid but will also be eligible for state grants if they streamline
their governments, described the grant plan as the “Jerry
Jennings Protection Act.”
That was the third time in his major speeches as governor
that Cuomo has mentioned his good friend and consummate fund
raiser, Jerry Jennings. The reference was clearly meant as
an inside joke—a jab at his good friend—but that was certainly
not the time for it. Not only was it ill-advised to make a
bad joke in the middle of the speech about cutting life-sustaining
funding, education funding, funding that will cost people
their jobs and perhaps their homes, but it was a thundering
reminder that Cuomo is not an outsider who just figured out
how the system works; he is an insider who thinks the people
he was elected to govern are too stupid to realize how he
is manipulating them.
What was perhaps even more nauseating and revealing about
the way Cuomo operates is the fact that Cuomo did tuck a favor
for his friend Jerry into his budget—the kind of favor that
could easily be labeled “The Jerry Jennings Protection Act.”
The budget reauthorizes the Albany Convention Center Authority’s
access to $63 million in state funds to continue the project.
While experts continue to warn that the convention center
could easily become a boondoggle that drags down not only
the city’s economy but the county’s as well, Jennings has
insisted it needs to be built. The rumor, of course, is that
Jennings plans to be mayor until the convention center is
built and has his name on it.
Cuomo was certainly the beneficiary of Jerry’s fundraising
abilities; he got fat checks from Jerry’s good friends at
BBL to the tune of $5,000 in 2009. Jennings himself cut a
$10,000 check in November of 2009, and there was the $500-a-head
fundraiser Jennings held for Cuomo at the Fort Orange Club
in November of the same year. Cuomo did Jennings the return
favor of endorsing him in his race against Corey Ellis.
What is the message you can take from this? That Cuomo is
not a passionate, outsider who wants to come in and change
Albany for the better. He is a back-room player, loaded up
with cash from real estate and business firms and looking
to hammer away at unions—the groups that represent the working
class. Sure, unions may need to make give-backs, but they
are not the only ones to be blamed for the state’s fiscal
Cuomo is so used to insider politics that he makes it part
of the budget speech in which he calls for $ 5 billion in
cuts to education and health care aid. Jennings has regularly
been the punch line in Cuomo’s jokes. But does anyone else
get the feeling that the people of New York State and in particular
the residents of Albany may be the real butts of the joke?