At the Somos el Futuro legislative conference in Albany this weekend, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli could be seen hugging Senator Charles Schumer-not because he was feeling particularly affectionate, but because Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, chairman of the conference, which gathers top Democratic officials to discuss issues of concern to Hispanic New Yorkers, had urged attendees to “embrace the person that is sitting next to you.” Mr. Schumer gamely hugged him back, to cheers from the crowd. Across the table, New York’s junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand laughed and applauded; New York’s lieutenant governor, Robert Duffy, smiled with his mouth open. Sitting between Ms. Gillibrand and Mr. Duffy was Governor Andrew Cuomo.
No one hugged Mr. Cuomo.
Noting the action-or non-action-at the table, Mr. Ortiz, speaking into the microphone at the podium, said, “Nobody wants to embrace the governor.” Everyone laughed, and Mr. Ortiz pleaded, “Somebody has to embrace the governor.” Ms. Gillibrand, who earlier had given the governor a brief peck on the check, did so again, and the room applauded.
Ms. Gillibrand notwith-standing, the reticence is understandable. Embracing the governor isn’t appealing these days, especially if you’re Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Cuomo just announced a $132.5 billion budget that cut about $1.5 billion from city school funding, according to critics.
The day of the Somos dinner, The New York Times used phrases like “unnecessary pain” and “inhumane and financially backward” to describe the budget, and several Democratic lawmakers spent the weekend muttering about adding new taxes and restoring cuts they were forced to accept.
Getting Mr. Cuomo’s budget through the Legislature on time was no easy task. Mr. Cuomo’s office allowed legislators to circumvent the three-day waiting period required before voting on legislation, making the circular argument that “the facts necessitating an immediate vote on the bills are as follows: the bill is necessary to enact the 2011-2012 State budget.” The Buffalo News‘ veteran Albany man, Tom Precious, noted that the exact figures outlining how much money each school district was getting were made public around 9 p.m.; legislators finished voting on the budget hours later, at 1 a.m. Times reporter Thomas Kaplan wrote, “At times, legislators did not seem entirely sure about what they were voting on.”
Mr. Cuomo, who was chased down by reporters as he left the Somos dinner, confidently defended himself, once again, using the same argument about spending that has been used in recent weeks and months by conservative governors like Chris Christie: “I disagree with the concept that the only way to get better services is ‘more money, more money, more money.’ We’ve been spending a lot more money; we’re not getting better services. We spend more money than any state in the nation on education; we’re number 34 in terms of results.”
“So,” Mr. Cuomo added, “it’s not as simple as ‘shovel more money to these groups and maybe something will happen.’ We need to stress performance and achievement in these programs and make the programs work.”
“Bullshit!” said the City Council’s education chairman, Robert Jackson.
He was standing in the Crowne Plaza Hotel earlier that day, handing out copies of the Times editorial criticizing Mr. Cuomo’s budget.
“And I say bullshit-I’m sorry, they tell me not to curse anymore,” he said. “The bottom line is, we’re losing a billion dollars because of this state budget. A billion, O.K.?”
Mr. Jackson is somewhat ahead of the curve. Many Democrats-particularly city Democrats-have either maintained a bashful silence about a state budget that sends far less money to the city than prior budgets, or are only now getting around to raising concerns about the on-time state budget agreement the governor triumphantly announced last week.
It’s not just the fact that the governor pushed the budget through the Legislature quickly, threatening to pass take-it-or-leave-it “extender bills” in the absence of a punctual consensus by the Legislature, though there was that. The governor is very popular at the moment, and resistance is, politically, not all that easy. It is not a coincidence that at a time when even the famously immovable Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, hasn’t seen fit to pick a fight with Mr. Cuomo over the budget, most Democratic officials in New York have chosen to accept it all with a smile.
It has been Mr. Bloomberg, by virtue of his jurisdiction, who has been most vocally opposed to Mr. Cuomo’s spending cuts, practically standing in for what surely would have been the Democratic opposition to the Cuomo budget, if there were any concerted Democratic opposition to speak of. Mr. Bloomberg said the state cuts impacting New York City were “an outrage.” He wrote an op-ed in the Daily News, headlined, “How the State Budget Unfairly Singles Out NYC.”
The mayor’s outspokeness is also coming at a time when he’s suffering from historically low approval ratings. To pump those up, and get his story out, Mr. Bloomberg is running ads saying he’s protecting the city.
Mr. Bloomberg is largely blaming the governor for what he says will be a 6,000-head reduction in the city’s workforce of teachers. Mr. Cuomo’s aides have said that the mayor is exaggerating. Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said in a March 28 public statement that “the City Department of Education has a surplus of over $300 million” and “the city revenue position has improved, so they have much less pressure on their overall budget.”
Unions representing teachers and municipal workers are running ads saying the city is greedily hoarding a $3 billion surplus while threatening layoffs.
The issue would seem to be one of semantics. The mayor’s aides say there is no surplus-especially not one in their Department of Education-and they stop just short of calling those claims flat-out lies. The $3 billion surplus is already earmarked to plug the budget gap in the upcoming fiscal year-which the city is legally required to do-starting in July. Using it now, Bloomberg aides say, will only lead to more layoffs and deeper cutbacks when those later expenses come due.
When asked to verify the education surplus claim, a spokesman for Mr. Cuomo pointed to the Financial Plan Statements for New York City, issued by the city’s Office of Management and Budget. The report does in fact show a $271 million surplus. But the figures are from December, and have since been updated. The latest report, showing January figures, says the $23 billion agency has only a $17 million surplus, hardly enough to make a statistical dent.
When asked about the January figures, the Cuomo spokesman, Mr. Vlasto, said the December figures represented an end-of-year surplus, and thus were valid. Not so. The calendar year (January to December) does not line up with the city’s fiscal year (July to June). Doug Turetsky, a spokesman at the Independent Budget Office, said the December figures were “outdated” and that with the December figures, “you’re halfway into the fiscal year.”
Even City Comptroller John Liu, whose office is obligated under the city charter to comb through the city’s finances and issue reports on it, and who is not exactly shy in airing his opinions, has been thoroughly muted in his assessment of the facts at issue in this argument.
The city’s habit of rolling over surplus created a “fiscal cushion” that “masks the City budget’s structural imbalance,” Mr. Liu’s office wrote in a March 21 report. “While the City has provided
$83 $853 million in additional funding to the DOE to mitigate the impact from the expiration of [federal stimulus funds] at the end of FY2011, these funds will not
be adequate to prevent addition pedagogical layoffs.” [corrected]
So Mr. Cuomo is right about Mr. Bloomberg.
And, “as a result of the State’s fiscal problems, the financial burden in support of [the city's Department of Education] operations has fallen squarely on the City,” Mr. Liu’s office wrote in that report.
So Mr. Bloomberg is right about Mr. Cuomo.
But Mr. Liu, who managed a team of actuaries at PricewaterhouseCoopers and holds a degree in mathematical physics, says the existence of a surplus at the Department of Education is a matter of interpretation.
“Both sides are correct,” Mr. Liu told The Observer. “No side would make an incorrect claim, all right? No governor is going to make an incorrect claim. No mayor is going to make an incorrect claim. But things are subject to interpretation, and therefore both are correct.” It depends on what you mean by “surplus.”
Seated in a cushioned chair in the basement of the Legislative Office Building the morning of the Somos dinner, Mr. Liu said, “The dispute notwithstanding, the bigger issue is that the negotiations have moved from Albany to City Hall. We’ll see what happens in the next few months. There’s three months to go. A lot can happen in the next three months.”
He went on: “Keep in mind that between the mayor’s November plan, and the mayor’s February plan, three months, $2 billion materialized, O.K.? So, we got another three months to go. A lot could happen.”
How Mr. Cuomo handled his budget is a marked contrast to how Mr. Bloomberg handled his, said Fred Siegel, a historian with Cooper Union who is also associated with the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank.
Both Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Bloomberg are settling their budgets in absence of huge federal stimulus dollars. Mr. Cuomo, bravely, opted to restructure expenses, such as Medicaid, and charged headfirst into the state’s other major expense, education.
Mr. Bloomberg, now handling his 10th budget, is only now getting to structural changes, said Mr. Siegel.
“The easy thing is to cut services and blame it on someone else,” said Mr. Siegel. “The hard thing to do is structural reform.”
Without another injection of federal stimulus money, and with Wall Street still recovering from his epic implosion, “it’s hard to see a deus ex machina that pulls us out of this,” said Mr. Siegel. “What Cuomo is doing is responding to that lack of deus ex machina.” Mr. Siegel, who is no fan of Mr. Bloomberg, is skeptical of Mr. Cuomo as well.
“I’m one of those people who describes Cuomo’s budget as the tallest building in Topeka. Cuomo leaped over the low expectations,” said Mr. Siegel. “Tactically, politically, he did a brilliant job. I’m just not sure where the substance is here.” How exactly does the governor go about closing 3,700 unused prison beds, and where specifically do you find the millions of dollars in Medicaid savings, wondered Mr. Siegel.
And now it’s Mr. Bloomberg’s turn. He will make his latest budget pitch to city lawmakers in a few weeks. He is husbanding an extra $200 million in reserves heading into next year, in the part of budget that requires him to keep a poll of money in reserve-a minimum of $100 million. Mr. Bloomberg has tucked away $300 million.
But that small reserve is hardly enough to stave off what city lawmakers say will be a painful exercise: fighting to preserve services without the ability to raise taxes and bring in additional revenue. And members of the City Council are not looking forward to it.
“I think people understand we’re in a difficult economic climate and that cuts are necessary here,” said Dan Garodnick, a Democrat repressing Manhattan’s East Side, who counts Mr. Bloomberg among his constituents. “But they need to be done fairly and with an eye towards protecting the most vulnerable New Yorkers.”
“We should be honest with people when we say we’re going to do less,” said Councilman Lew Fidler of Brooklyn. “And we’re going to do less.”
“Telling people all is well, all is well-like the ending scene of Animal House, when there’s a riot going on around you-does nobody any favors,” he said.
Back in the Crowne Plaza in Albany, Mr. Cuomo’s budget and political future were the topic of conversation among a group of LaGuardia Community College students who just ran through a mock session acting as various members of the State Senate. “They should have not cut so into SUNY,” said Christian Sanchez-Narvaez, a CUNY student who played the Democratic conference leader, John Sampson. He was happy some of Mr. Cuomo’s cuts were restored by legislators, but “they could have done a lot better, done a lot more to restore that money.”
He added, “I think education could have been restored fully.”