Heading down the stretch to an April 1 budget deadline, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s upper hand over the legislature seems difficult to overstate. Last month his fellow Democrat, Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, declared in a radio interview: “New York arguably has the strongest executive compared to any governor in any state in the union.”
The immediate example is the governor’s widely noted power to stuff policy changes into budget bills, combined with his ability to resort to budget “extenders” that keep the state government running if lawmakers fail to reach a fiscal agreement with him in time. It was a measure Gov. David A. Paterson first deployed when the State Senate was in a partisan standoff in 2009.
If that sounds like a sharp tilt in the checks and balances of government, consider the recent damage to the reputation of the legislative branch from the prosecutions of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. Bharara’s biggest Albany indictment to date — of Assemb. Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), the ex-speaker — set a keynote for the current session.
The largely self-inflicted wounds of continual scandals have helped put the Senate and Assembly at a point where a call to increase their clout against the governor’s might sound out of step with the march of current events. Who gripes when Cuomo calls for a crackdown on self-serving legislative conduct?
The executive has moved here and there into what might have been regarded as legislative territory, such as clamping down on pork-barrel spending and declining to release early versions of planned school-aid distribution.
Also, putting aside subsequent static from Bharara, the governor’s Moreland Commission last year temporarily stuck probes into lawmakers’ activities, drawing a lawsuit — since abandoned — that claimed the panel’s actions transgressed the constitutional separation of powers.
Formed in 2011, the first year of the administration, the enduring Joint Commission on Public Ethics has eight legislative and six executive appointees, but with a chairman chosen by the governor. It meant gubernatorial appointees were routinely taking part in probes of legislators’ actions.
Cuomo needs the legislature to accomplish his stated aims. They’ll always be in a kind of forced partnership. Given Cuomo’s upper hand, though, you have to wonder how much it matters whether he meets “in the room” with two legislative players to steer the state, or with four or five.