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Cuomo held the cards in budget talks

From left, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. Andrew

From left, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos talk before a news conference at the Capitol in Albany. (March 27, 2011) Credit: AP

ALBANY -- It wasn't quite like shooting fish in a barrel, but Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was positioned almost from the start of this year's budget negotiations to get the bulk of what he wanted, lawmakers and observers said Monday.

The trail of legislative scandals may have left lawmakers in a cooperative posture. Advertising support from the Democratic Party and a well-heeled business group helped neutralize critics on the air waves, they said.

But the most important factor enabling him to enforce an April 1 deadline was his power, first used last year by Gov. David A. Paterson, to put his spending cuts into emergency bills. Lawmakers at that point would be faced with the choice of accepting the cuts or shutting down state government.

That leverage changed the entire dynamic.

"That's why since January, Silver and Skelos had been telling their members we're going to have an on-time budget," said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg, referring to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre).

"Getting an early deal was their only chance to get something" in the budget, Greenberg said. "Once we got past March 31, they would have zero cards in their deck."

As announced Sunday, the budget agreement mostly sticks to a plan Cuomo outlined last month. It contains $1.3 billion in cuts to education, a 10-percent reduction in state agency operations, $1 billion in reductions to Medicaid and a call to close a handful of state prisons, eliminating 3,700 beds.

Total state spending will be reduced approximately $3.5 billion -- just over 2 percent -- from the current fiscal year.

"I always thought governors had more power than they used," said Jeffrey Stonecash, a Syracuse University professor and longtime observer of New York politics. "I watched Mario Cuomo buckle at the end and give in to the Legislature. [George] Pataki won several court cases [to increase his power], but he used it sparingly. I always thought they had more power in the constitution, but they didn't want to do it. And Andrew Cuomo did."

In a broad sense, Skelos and Senate Republicans also fared well, in part because their key goals, spending cuts and no new taxes, were aligned with Cuomo from the start. And if the budget agreement holds together and is adopted on time, Skelos may claim that he brought the Senate back from dysfunction.

"If you look at the word dysfunction and you eliminate the first three [letters], you have function," Skelos said Sunday at the news conference to announce the agreement. "And New York State government is now functioning well on a bipartisan basis."

But Republicans also went along with prison closures -- a worrisome position for their upstate members -- and failed to include a so-called "empowerment" plan to give Stony Brook University and the state's three other public-university centers flexibility in setting their own tuitions.

Silver succeeded in blocking a $250,000 cap on medical malpractice awards. But he lost his most public battle: renewal of the "millionaire's tax" on high-income New Yorkers.

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