Distinctive budget speeches are hard to come by

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s state budget plan, announced Tuesday, would cut taxes, increase spending on Medicaid and on schools by about 4 percent, but decrease spending at state universities and community colleges. Courtesy: New York State (Jan. 21, 2014)

Now for a quick quiz: Which of the following remarks came from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's election-year budget address Tuesday?

A. "This growth budget makes investments . . . to grow jobs in the near-term and strengthen our state in the long term."

B. "This budget furthers a plan to . . . live within our means, and do it while making bold investments to create jobs and grow our economy."


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C. "We turned around the spending . . . the taxes . . . the employment . . . the jobs number and . . . the direction of the state."

D. "This budget addresses critical needs of the world we now live in, while considering demands that will be placed on us in the years ahead."

E. All of the above.

The correct answer is C, and the point is, there's only so much variation to be found in budget rhetoric. Choices A, B, and D were, respectively, from the 2013 presentations of Govs. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, Dannel Molloy of Connecticut, and Jack Markell of Delaware.

States have big differences, of course. New York has relatively high debt and tax burdens, for example. We have a huge financial engine downstate, and severe economic stasis upstate. Cuomo did his best Tuesday to suggest that changes have begun.

Cuomo declared, "We've gone from a $10 billion deficit to a $2 billion surplus. I don't know if I would have told you that was possible when we started this journey together. Let's give yourselves a big round of applause."

But even Cuomo's triumph-over-adversity motif, helped by a gradual national recovery, has recent precedent.

One year ago, California Gov. Jerry Brown proclaimed in his own budget presentation: "We have wrought in just two years a solid and enduring budget. And, by God, we will persevere and keep it that way for years to come . . . California did the impossible."

National economic and social trends help shape state choices. This is worth remembering when our candidates for governor this year try to make their agendas sound distinctive.

Last year, the National Association of State Budget Officers reported: "In a number of states, governors have made education their top priority and have called for increased K-12 spending," along with changes to funding formulas and more early-childhood funds. The organization reported that most governors were proposing "modest" general fund spending growth, "well below historical averages."

If that sounded broadly familiar to New Yorkers, so should the group's finding that a number of states also moved to change income tax rates and were "re-examining corporate taxes to encourage economic growth." Governors are "concerned about uncertainty at the federal level, which may impact economic growth and state revenues," the budget officers added.

Some of the political subtext of Cuomo's budget speech, however, was quite New York-specific. Without saying so, he addressed new New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He did so when he called for universal pre-K statewide, a de Blasio goal for the city, and when he renewed calls for a $10 billion federal "Medicaid waiver" to fund hospitals de Blasio agitated to save.

Cuomo also decided to take the occasion to make another pitch for his proposed ethics legislation.

Among governors' budget messages, that part was probably unique.