“I am the government,” Governor Andrew Cuomo famously declared in 2011 during his first term. The statement isn’t as hyperbolic as it sounds. The New York State Constitution and subsequent case law allow the governor to dictate how money is spent, and there isn’t much the legislature can do about it.
Over his decade in office, Cuomo has consolidated this power, cramming the annual budget full of his priorities—education changes, pay raises, a “justice agenda” to name a few—and forcing the legislature to vote for it or face the wrath of the public from a government shutdown.
This year that dynamic is different. With less than one month until the budget is due, Cuomo is facing growing calls to resign because of his handling of nursing home deaths during the pandemic, and as more women come forward to describe how Cuomo sexually harassed them.
“The legislature needs to be as aggressive as possible,” said Jonathan Westin, the executive director of New York Communities for Change. “With the governor reeling, I think it’s an opportunity to actually get done a lot of the things that he’s been obstructing for over a decade.”
Westin’s group has been pushing for a raft of progressive priorities in Albany that Cuomo has so far resisted, like raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy to fund deep rent reform for tenants and undocumented New Yorkers. Proponents of the six bills included in the Invest In Our New York Act say it would raise as much as $50 billion to help New Yorkers who are still suffering from joblessness and hunger created by the pandemic.
“For years, the governor has used his willingness to threaten legislators and his bully pulpit to strengthen his position heading into budget negotiations,” said Monica Klein, a spokesperson for the Invest In Our NY Campaign. “Now that he is preoccupied by sexual harassment scandals and nursing homes cover-ups, and hiding from the public, he’s not walking into the negotiating room at full strength.”
Gerald Benjamin, a law professor at SUNY New Paltz who has studied Albany for more than 50 years, said that this year’s budget process recalls other “extreme budgets” of the past, such as the 1975 fiscal crisis. But he acknowledged that Cuomo’s recent scandals made this year unique.
“When you’re wounded and on the defensive, it’s harder to take a power position in critical and difficult policy discussions, and that’s what the budget is about,” Benjamin said.
The best way to exercise any newfound leverage the legislature has, according to Benjamin, isn’t necessarily in the budget process itself, but in a separate bill proposed by Bronx State Senator Alessandra Biaggi that would grant lawmakers equal power on how taxpayer money is spent.
“They have more chance of doing that and politically succeeding because the governor is politically weakened,” Benjamin said.
Normally, the governor presents his budget in January. Both the Assembly and the Senate then come up with their own non-binding priorities—called a “one house” in Albany parlance—and the governor ultimately decides whether to keep or toss them.
The governor also has an opportunity to tack on amendments to the budget that reflect his priorities, from “canal revitalization” to nursing home reforms, and the legislature has little recourse but to pass the whole budget or risk a shutdown.
“We have a voice, but we don’t really have a say,” Biaggi told Gothamist.
Biaggi’s legislation would allow state lawmakers the power to reduce, eliminate, add, or alter an item on the governor’s proposed budget, and the stated ability to pass appropriation bills outside of the budget—powers that many other state legislatures have.
“We’re in a really important moment where a lot of New Yorkers are paying attention to the governor’s expanded emergency powers and his unilateral power,” Biaggi said. “We have a unique opportunity to bring to light the importance of the budget process and a lot of the dangerous flaws in the consolidation of the governor’s powers that really leave out the legislature in the most crucial document and set of decision-making that we do every single year.”
The senator, who called on Cuomo to resign last week, citing his “clear pattern of manipulation and abuse,” said she is under no illusion that the governor will back down during budget negotiations.
“He is not somebody who is easily going to give up power. Even in moments of crisis he’s trying to take more,” Biaggi said, pointing to a recent budget amendment Cuomo proposed that would give him the power to spend all of the new revenue raised in this year’s budget.
Even if Cuomo were to step down or find himself personally removed from budget negotiations, Biaggi pointed out that his budget director, Robert Mujica, “is probably the most skilled person at the New York State budget process,” and would shepherd the governor’s priorities through.
Cuomo’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
While a growing number of state lawmakers have called for the governor’s resignation, absent on that list are the two legislative leaders: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Neither responded to our questions for this story.
Outside of the budget and raising taxes on the wealthy, Biaggi said she hopes to finish her work on a slate of unfinished bills related to sexual harassment, like closing the loophole for voluntary intoxication, empowering prosecutors to pursue rape charges in cases where the victim is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol. “I cannot imagine ending this year without doing them,” Biaggi said.
Jose Saldana, the 69-year-old formerly incarcerated director of Releasing Aging People In Prison, said he was hopeful for an overhaul of the state’s broken parole system this year through the Fair and Timely Parole Act, which would force the parole board to make more equitable decisions. A recent Times Union analysis found that white New Yorkers were granted parole at significantly higher rates than Black and Latinos.
“The governor’s office is an obstacle to any type of genuine reform, especially when it involves Black and Latino communities,” Saldana said.
“Personally, I don’t know if he’s gonna survive this. He very well might survive this and go back to business as usual,” Saldana said of Cuomo.
“But if his candidacy for his next election is actually threatened, he might very well pass some real reforms knowing that he may not get another opportunity, and let this be his legacy to the Black and brown communities that he has ignored over ten years.”