When Democrat Andrew M. Cuomo, 60, became governor in 2011, he took over a government so reliably and overwhelmingly dysfunctional that the idea of a competent Albany was a punch line.
Budgets were never on time. New levies, like the payroll tax for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, were imposed. Old ones, like local property taxes, were skyrocketing. The unemployment rate was 9 percent. The state’s projected budget deficit was $10 billion. And the two previous governors, Eliot Spitzer and David A. Paterson, left office amid clouds of scandal and incompetence.
On the day Cuomo was sworn in, the governance of New York was such a disaster that it’s easy to forget how impossible improvement once seemed.
In nearly eight years since then, Cuomo has shepherded every budget to passage on time or very close to it, and never passed a significant tax increase. Under his leadership, that MTA payroll tax that so infuriated Long Islanders was eliminated for 80 percent of employers. State income tax rates declined a bit. State spending increased by less than 2 percent a year for his first six budgets, though that’s ticked up in the past two. And a new, less expensive pension tier for public employees hired as of 2012 began to bend that cost curve.
Most important, a property-tax cap Cuomo spearheaded altered the state’s trajectory, particularly in the suburbs. Had school property taxes continued to escalate at the 6.3 percent average rate they did for 30 years before the cap, the tax bills of many Long Islanders could be 40 percent higher than they are. Every economic aspect of life here would likely be far worse, from home values to unemployment rates to wage levels to the number of businesses founded.
Each of these economic triumphs came with the enthusiastic help of majority Senate Republicans, who shared many of Cuomo’s fiscal priorities, and some badgering and horse-trading with the Democrats in the majority in the Assembly. The opposite formula was needed for Cuomo to be successful with social initiatives, like same-sex marriage, gun restrictions, a steadily higher minimum wage and blockage of hydrofracking.
And while many of these big policy changes were adopted in Cuomo’s first four years, he’s had similar success in his second term pushing through seemingly impossible infrastructure projects. The rebuilding of LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, the completion of the Second Avenue Subway, the replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge and the start of the long-proposed Long Island Rail Road’s third-track project are the grander examples of where he’s gotten dirt moving.
Much of Cuomo’s success has come from an ability to intertwine items for opposing sides that incentivizes compromise, and an aggressively hectoring style that incentivizes surrender. It’s not at all pretty, but it works pretty well.
Marc Molinaro, 43, of Tivoli, is Cuomo’s Republican opponent. A public servant since he first ran for the village board at age 18, Molinaro has been a mayor, county legislator, assemblyman and, since 2012, the Dutchess County executive.
Molinaro says he’s running because the state has become too expensive, with the highest property tax burden in the nation, eroding infrastructure and a government that refuses to focus on the challenges. He sees communities hollowed out in his home county and across the state because of the cost to achieve New Yorkers’ dreams.
The cornerstone of Molinaro’s campaign is a plan to cut local property taxes by 30 percent. It’s a noble goal, but his ideas for implementation fall into two categories: old specific ones that have been rejected for years, like eliminating laws and prevailing wage rules that increase government construction costs dramatically, and perennially vague ideas that get nowhere once details are needed, like eliminating “unfunded mandates” put on school districts and locales by federal and state governments. And beyond the magic mantra of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse, he also can’t explain how his other big local savings, shifting $7.6 billion in county Medicaid spending to the state, would be done without increasing state taxes.
Molinaro is low key, and has on-the-ground political savvy. He’s not wrong to target New York’s bloated Medicaid spending and antiquated laws. His MTA restructuring plan is thoughtful.
Third terms are often more curse than blessing. Cuomo must allow far more oversight of economic development to make sure state money spent on job creation delivers. No laws will stop greedy people from taking advantage of public positions, as shown by the federal corruption convictions of a very close aide as well as three people involved in upstate economic development programs. But ethics reforms, such as lowering the limits on political contributions from individuals and corporations, could minimize the temptations.
Cuomo must continue his focus on moving the state forward. And he may have new partners who will allow him to win on some fronts, but he must stop those looking to roll back some of his economic gains. If Democrats take the State Senate, worthy initiatives could move, such as preventing the purchase or possession of guns by troubled individuals; raising the age for purchasing guns to 21; protecting against the federal legislation that capped state and local tax deductions; passing the Child Victims Act, allowing those who were sexually abused as minors to file lawsuits; and approving ethics and voting reforms.
What Cuomo needs to do is keep a lid on more extreme legislative dreams like ending or loosening the property tax cap, raising state taxes, raising the costs of education and health care, and rushing to legalize recreational marijuana without careful thought.
New York needs a governor who can temper idealism with common sense, who can run the state competently at all times while pushing for huge changes when the time is right. Andrew M. Cuomo has done both for eight years.
Newsday endorses Cuomo.