Lawmakers return, ready to battle Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Jan 10, 2011)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Jan 10, 2011) (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

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ALBANY - In his first eight weeks in office, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo hasn't exactly been timid, firing broadsides at the salaries of school superintendents and moving to take legislative redistricting out of state lawmakers' hands.

With lawmakers returning tomorrow from their midwinter break, many politicians and political experts say Cuomo's boldness has put him in a strong position for upcoming battles over state funding cuts. Some lawmakers, however, are bristling at Cuomo's style - which they describe as all sticks and no carrots. For some, that awakens echoes of former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose demeanor eventually alienated most lawmakers.

"The governor's powers are strong already and Governor Cuomo proposes to go to another level," said Robert Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute and author of a book on how New York state government works. "So far, this governor is using his powers very aggressively and looking to add to them."

"For a guy who fumbled his way in 2002, he's grown incredibly as both a political and public manager," said Lawrence Levy, dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, referring to Cuomo's earlier failed gubernatorial bid. "He's also managed to sell the public on the idea that things are really bad."

Levy says Cuomo has used "carrots as sticks" with lawmakers and special interest groups.

For example, he created a Medicaid "redesign" team that includes health care industry officials - putting the people who traditionally have fought against Medicaid cuts in the role of recommending reductions. He's tried to embarrass lawmakers into agreeing to tougher ethics laws by bringing up corruption scandals frequently in his speeches - but he's also held private talks with them to try to build support.

In 2007, Spitzer dubbed himself the "steamroller" as he attempted to force legislators to follow his agenda. Critics say he never realized he eventually would need those same lawmakers to help him pass legislation, and was left with few allies.

State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Cuomo has been "dealing with sound bites that work by beating up an unpopular legislature."

"We've heard nothing from him as far as acknowledging the legislators when we work with him," Zeldin said. "A lot of us are going out of our way to commend him, and there he is comparing the legislature to Enron."

But Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) said it is too early for legislators to be at loggerheads with Cuomo, as the budget debate has yet to be begin in earnest. "When I compare him to Eliot Spitzer, I'm dealing with a person who wants to reach out, build consensus and get a proper decision," LaValle said.

For Cuomo, the biggest looming battle is the state budget with its estimated $10-billion deficit. It is due April 1, and thanks to a recent court decision, the governor now has much more formidable budgeting powers.

Formerly, if lawmakers missed the deadline, a governor would keep government running through a series of short-term emergency spending bills. But former Gov. David A. Paterson changed the calculus by essentially putting his policy agenda and appropriations in the extender bills.

If there's no budget April 1, Cuomo could put all his budget changes - cuts to school aid and Medicaid, 9,800 state-worker layoffs and prison closures - in an extender that legislators could not amend, but only adopt or reject. That would risk a state government shutdown.

But experts warned that in that scenario, Cuomo also would risk losing his healthy approval rating - with 56 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released last week saying they approved of his performance so far, and nearly 70 percent saying they preferred his wooing of lawmakers to Spitzer's "steamroller" approach.

With Patrick Whittle

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