Hear an echo? It's the Cuomos' speeches

Then-New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, center, celebrates with Then-New York Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo, center, celebrates with his father, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, before giving his victory speech in New York City. (Nov. 2, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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ALBANY - Twenty-eight years separate the first State of the State speeches of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, but the themes are strikingly similar.

Both men called for a cap on state spending, consolidation of government agencies, shared sacrifice to close huge budget deficits, and changes in how school aid is distributed. They pledged to work with a legislature that at times had spurned their predecessors.

However, despite the familiar rhetoric, experts said, the circumstances surrounding the younger Cuomo's address last week are different from those faced by the elder Cuomo in 1983.

State government is now in crisis, both financially and ethically. Lawmakers are unwilling to make tough choices for fear of losing re-election next year, and voter disgust with Albany is at record levels.

"There are surface similarities in the speeches, but the fiscal situation is much different, much worse," said E.J. McMahon of the conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. "The downturn in state revenue has been more severe [in the recession] because New York is now much more dependent on high-income taxpayers and Wall Street than it was back then."

McMahon and others said Andrew Cuomo's proposed spending reductions would be deeper and more widespread because he's ruled out borrowing and tax increases - used by Mario Cuomo to balance budgets. The state and national economies also aren't likely to bounce back as they did in the mid-1980s under President Ronald Reagan.

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"It will be harder for Andrew to hold the line on taxes in his first term than it was for Mario, who had the wind at his back with the beginning of the Reagan boom years," McMahon said.

Closing this year's deficit, which Cuomo estimated at about $10 billion, is more difficult because the easy cuts were made by Gov. David A. Paterson when he trimmed $42 billion from the last three budgets.

Arthur "Jerry" Kremer, a lobbyist and former assemblyman from Long Beach, said, "When Mario Cuomo took office, there was still some flexibility left for making cuts, ways of saving money, gimmicks that the legislature would resort to, to try to get out of the mess. None of those are available to Andrew Cuomo. The cupboard is truly bare."

Kremer, who led the Ways and Means Committee during part of his 23-year tenure, received a shout-out in Mario Cuomo's first State of the State for his push to overhaul the relationship between the state and municipalities. Andrew Cuomo didn't include such acknowledgments in his 45-minute speech last Wednesday before 2,200 people in the Albany Convention Center, though he urged lawmakers to work with him.

Kremer, a Democrat, was skeptical the legislature would embrace Cuomo's agenda of spending cuts, tough governmental ethics and agency consolidation. "You have a new breed of member, who is more dedicated to survival every two years and less willing to bite the bullet and make hard decisions," Kremer said. "Mario Cuomo took advantage of the fact that there were a lot of people who wanted to straighten out the affairs of the state . . ."

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Still, Andrew Cuomo possesses some advantages in his early days as governor that Mario Cuomo acquired later, namely governmental experience.

The son comes to office after four years as state attorney general, eight years as a federal housing official under President Bill Clinton and 12 years as an adviser to his father when he was governor. When Mario Cuomo moved into the Executive Mansion, he had spent four years as lieutenant governor and four years as secretary of state.

"Andrew Cuomo comes into a worse fiscal situation, but a better political situation than Mario Cuomo," said Steven Greenberg, a Siena College Research Institute pollster who listened to both speeches. "He comes in with far more experience managing government entities, budgets and politics than his father did."

The new governor will need all that and more to tackle the state's problems, not the least of which is public disillusionment about Capitol goings-on. He has said he hopes to renew voters' faith in government by having them lobby lawmakers to pass the program he outlined in the State of the State.

Harold Holzer, a historian and former aide to Mario Cuomo, said, "The level of cynicism and the sense that nothing can get done is so pervasive now that I think the challenge is much greater in 2011 than it was in 1983."

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