ALBANY - To be a successful governor, Andrew M. Cuomo has to make this year all about closing the mammoth state budget deficit, political experts said.
Sure, there are other important issues Cuomo campaigned on, such as the property tax cap, overhauling governmental ethics and downsizing state government. But if he fails to persuade lawmakers to jettison their spendthrift ways, then the public will abandon him as they did his two immediate predecessors, the experts said.
"Governors are most powerful in the first six months because the legislature is afraid of them, especially if they won a big mandate," said Lawrence Norden of New York University Law School's Brennan Center for Justice. "But a few wrong moves can close that window of opportunity as we've seen" with Eliot Spitzer and David A. Paterson.
Norden and others, citing Cuomo's years of experience, said the new chief executive understands how his first steps will probably determine success or failure in the long run. And he's determined not to falter.
"The government is going to have to perform," Cuomo said last week. "I never said that I was going to change everything in the first 90 days . . . [but] I believe we're going to make significant progress."
His initial to-do list should include these items, according to political observers.
Budget is job one
Closing this year's budget deficit of $9.3 billion without raising taxes, as he pledged during the campaign, has to be Cuomo's top priority, economists said. He should use the fiscal crisis to bring spending for Medicaid, school aid and employee benefits in line with diminished tax collections.
Elizabeth Lynam, director of state studies for the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, said, "There are going to be battles over school aid and other spending, but Cuomo can prevail if he shows that every ox is being gored a little bit to solve the problem; that there is shared sacrifice."
Key to stanching the red ink will be concessions from the state employee unions who so far have been openly hostile to calls for a one-year wage freeze and less generous pensions.
Rallying the public
Cuomo's drive for a property tax cap, deep cuts in state spending, an overhaul of governmental ethics and independent redistricting are opposed by many lawmakers and interest groups. The proposals have little chance of success without the active support of voters.
"Legislators really don't want to do these things or they would have done them before," said Robert B. Ward of SUNY's Rockefeller Institute of Government. "Big changes require clear public support and I think that will determine the extent to which Gov. Cuomo is successful."
Voters must know how his plans will improve their lives and what they can do to help secure adoption, the experts said.
That means Cuomo must travel extensively, getting his message across through public appearances. He also can use his large campaign treasury to purchase television commercials and brochures to combat those of opponents.
Learn from mistakes
By picking fights with the legislature at the start of their respective tenures, Spitzer and Paterson increased the dysfunction in state government. Spitzer threatened to "steamroll" then-Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco (R-Schenectady), while Paterson said one thing and did another. Legislative leaders didn't trust either of them.
Gov. George Pataki did better but lost his ideological focus, observers said. In his 12 years, spending soared, even though he entered office as a fiscal conservative.
And experts said Cuomo's father, Mario, was indecisive at times, earning the moniker "Hamlet on the Hudson."
Respect the legislature
The legislature and governor's office have been bitter enemies for nearly four years. Recrimination has replaced compromise in most instances, and New York's problems have only worsened.
"Cuomo has to rebuild the relationship with the legislature if anything is to get done," said Stanley B. Klein, a politics professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University and Republican committeeman in Dix Hills. "Cuomo can't close the budget deficit alone. . . . He should involve lawmakers in his budget proposals before they are announced on Feb. 1."
Klein and others urged Cuomo, a Democrat, to find ways early on to collaborate with the State Senate's GOP majority, led by Dean Skelos of Rockville Centre. Republicans support Cuomo's proposals for caps on state spending and property taxes, both of which face opposition in the Democratic-controlled Assembly.
Forget about 2014
Cuomo should resist the temptation to judge every decision on how it will impact his re-election in four years. Experts urged him to focus on the job at hand, saying if the deficit is eliminated and the economy rebounds, he will be rewarded at the ballot box.
Kevin Law, a Cuomo friend and president of the Long Island Association business group, advised against even contemplating 2014.
"He should go in thinking he's only going to be a one-term governor," said Law, a member of Cuomo's transition team. "That frees him to fix the problems, regardless of the political consequences. "