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Bad Joke

Gov. 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 Albany malfeasance.

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 after 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 trouble .

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?

—David King


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