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Cuomo's second term brings pushback from lawmakers, public

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in the Red Room at the Capitol on Wednesday, March 18, 2015, in Albany. Credit: AP / Mike Groll

ALBANY -- In the first year of his second term, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had to back off several key demands he made in his budget as an emboldened State Legislature put up more resistance than in any of his first four years in office, analysts and legislators said.

Cuomo, a Democrat, dropped high-profile items from his agenda, including altering the grand jury process, raising the age of criminal prosecution, increasing the number of charter schools, hiking the minimum wage and allowing children of undocumented immigrants to apply for college tuition grants.

He had to bargain on his two most controversial initiatives: making student standardized tests account for 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation and forcing legislators who have outside income as attorneys to disclose all their clients.

The legislature tinkered and changed the final details, but the Cuomo administration still called these major victories. Some credit Cuomo for paring down a broad agenda and focusing on two top priorities, although much of his agenda didn't survive.

Call it a touch of second-term blues, analysts and legislators said.

Some is natural: Almost all governors see the honeymoon with legislators end after their first term. Legislators also are more empowered because Cuomo was re-elected by a smaller margin than first expected and because his public approval ratings, while still good, aren't sky-high anymore.

An unpopular plan

Some pointed out that while the governor staked his first term on items with strong public support, such as a property-tax cap, the Cuomo proposal that generated the most heat this year -- overhauling the teacher evaluation process -- wasn't popular among voters.

"Andrew Cuomo was forced to choose to negotiate this year, which he wasn't forced to do in his first term," said Richard Brodsky, a fellow at the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University and a former Democratic assemblyman from Westchester County.

"He was getting clobbered on policy, clobbered on the merits and after he told the world, 'My way or the highway,'he had to back off," Brodsky said. "In some respects, the flexibility he showed in backing off was a good thing. There was wisdom in that."Some defended Cuomo's strategy as practical.

"A governor has to make a judgment at the beginning of the budget cycle: focus on a few priorities or spread it out," said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant. "This year, the governor decided he wanted an ethics bill and teacher evaluations. . . . He achieved that."

Gyory added: "This was the first time his agenda wasn't backed by public opinion. Especially, when it came to education issues, the governor was running into headwinds."

Cuomo went further than any of his predecessors in maximizing a governor's powers under state budget laws, almost forcing legislators to fight back, others said. He tied the immigrant college tuition initiative, called the "Dream Act," to an education tax credit the GOP favored, hoping the leverage would win approval for each. Instead, both were dropped.

"The majorities in both houses have definitely pushed back more so than in the past," said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Queens). "I think the governor went farther than anyone has ever gone in inserting policy measures into the budget, so part of the pushback was a reaction to the aggression he showed . . . Also, there was more to fight against this year."

Timeliness a priority

Cuomo said he would fight for his criminal justice proposals and others in the second half of the year -- signaling that achieving the state's fifth straight on-time budget was a higher priority for the moment.

"He will get timeliness," said Gerald Benjamin, dean at the State University of New York at New Paltz and a longtime political observer. But he said Cuomo's approach of "declaring things nonnegotiable" that were, in fact, negotiable shows the limits of the tactic.

Cuomo downplayed the downgraded agenda. He told reporters Saturday that some initiatives were "statements of support" that can be addressed later, rather than top budget priorities. Asked if this was the hardest budget to settle in his five years, he said: "Without a doubt."


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