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Observation: Governor Cuomo’s Three Big Achievements June 2011

Governor Cuomo’s Three Big Achievements

By Robert B. Ward
Deputy Director/Director of Fiscal Studies, the Rockefeller Institute of Government

Robert B. Ward

Less than six months in office, Governor Cuomo has driven a trifecta of historic policy changes through the Legislature — and singlehandedly resurrected the concept of an agenda-setting chief executive in Albany.

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Robert B. Ward is deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute, where he heads research on state and local finances, and is author of New York State Government, Second Edition. An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the New York Post.

Elected leaders often describe their actions as historic, of course. Yet the nature of democratic governance is to move in marginal steps. Rare is the policy action that, years or even decades later, will be recalled as having changed government or society fundamentally.

Most obviously historic of the Cuomo trifecta is the gay-marriage law enacted late Friday night. New York becomes the first major state to approve same-sex marriage through vote of the people’s elected representatives. Judicially mandated laws in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa redefined marriage in those jurisdictions but did little to make politicians elsewhere see electoral value in the idea. Cuomo won his victory through the give and take of legislation, which resulted in some balancing of gay individuals’ rights with traditional moral understandings. President Obama and lawmakers in other states are taking note.

It’s easy to forget what a heavy political lift this was, even in New York. When the bill came to the floor in the liberal, Democratic-controlled state Assembly, the margin was only four votes beyond the minimum 76 of 150 required for approval. Some 17 Democratic members of the lower house joined Republicans in voting no. The measure would never have advanced even that far without determined, continued lobbying by its core supporters and a few passionately committed legislators. But passage by the Republican-dominated Senate would have been inconceivable absent a push from a strong, determined governor.

It may be decades before the laws of the land allow gay marriage throughout America. When this issue arises in other state capitols, Albany’s action in June 2011 will shape thinking and decisions on our most fundamental social institution.

Besides writing laws governing social and business relationships, governments have two big jobs: raising resources and allocating them among competing services. Cuomo’s first legislative session will leave a major imprint on state and local tax and spending policies for years to come.

The budget he persuaded the Legislature to enact in late March eliminates a big, immediate budget gap and goes a long way toward structural balance in coming years. No governor since Hugh Carey has been able to do that and maintain fiscal discipline over the long run. George Pataki enacted tight and balanced budgets his first and second years, even while cutting taxes substantially, but after that allowed spending to rise at what turned out to be unsustainable levels. There is a sense in Albany that Cuomo’s impact will be more long-lasting. Time will tell. For now, statutory spending limits he enacted in education and Medicaid funding will limit future budget gaps if implemented as planned. Earlier governors have tried to achieve sustainable savings, without success.

Perhaps the most broadly important legacy of Cuomo’s first six months is a cap on local property taxes that ranks as among the most stringent in the nation. School and municipal taxes have risen over time by an average of 5 percent or so annually. After adjustments for pension costs and new taxable development, the Cuomo cap will likely reduce such growth by 1 to 1.5 percentage points a year.

Such reductions, seemingly slight, will have a big impact after just a few years as the magic of compounding (reversed, in this case) takes effect. For taxpayers, the cap will provide noticeable relief compared to the status quo. The cap will mean tighter budgets and perhaps reduced services for both public schools and municipalities, but odds are future politicians won’t want to risk taxpayer wrath by eliminating or eviscerating it.

The bottom-line outlook at this point is for a gradual but clear reversal of a political culture in which voters have long accepted that they pay for the nation’s costliest public services – and that spending, rather than results, is the measure of success.

The freshman governor overcame strong opposition to win two other, major legislative victories. At his insistence, lawmakers agreed to disclose extensive details about their outside income, so voters may judge potential conflicts of interest. And the Legislature approved tuition increases for most State University and City University students, which Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and other leaders pledge to use for preservation and enhancement of higher-education opportunities throughout the state. These changes – just like the tax cap, a fiscally conservative budget and gay marriage – were on Cuomo’s list of top campaign promises. That list also includes the broad challenge of updating the state Constitution. Progress on so many fronts this year may allow Constitutional reform to become an issue for 2012 or 2013.

Cuomo now stands with Carey and Nelson Rockefeller among modern New York governors who made dramatic impacts on a range of fiscal and social policies. Like them, he recognized before others did that a new era had arrived, and was ready to lead the state’s response. The largest state-employee union’s decision to accept most of the governor’s terms in a new contract is among the evidence that Albany’s governing class sees the need for a new budgetary culture – at least for now.

Some New Yorkers had reached the point of wondering whether the term "chief executive" could really apply in Albany any more. The 56th governor lays that concern to rest. Voters disagree on the merits of each of his major achievements. But most want to have a deeply engaged, visionary leader who can work cooperatively with the Legislature to accomplish big things.

Politics and the media being what they are, speculation about a national future for Cuomo has already begun. But the more immediate question is: What comes next on this powerful governor’s agenda for New York?


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.