The last couple of years, Gov. David Paterson — a liberal Democrat from New York City — pushed through significant state budget cuts. But the effort was clumsy and erratic and it contributed to the collapse of his political career.
Since taking office last January, Governor Andrew Cuomo — a moderate Democrat from New York City — has pushed for even bigger changes.
The budget proposal unveiled yesterday doesn’t just aim to win one-year concessions and spending cuts. It would change the rule-book that governs future budget negotiations.
That’s a terrifying concept to thousands of powerful people in New York state, from hospital administrators to school superintendents.
But unlike Paterson, Cuomo’s approach so far has been pitch-perfect, a mix of humor, self-deprecation, and what appears to be steely resolve.
Naturally, a lot of groups have a lot of legitimate questions about the magnitude of Cuomo’s proposed restructuring.
There are reasonable misgivings about the fact that he plans to close the state’s black-hole budget gap without tax increases.
Those are debates that we need to have over the coming months.
But my sense is that Cuomo has already seized the high ground, framing the narrative in a way that will make life very difficult for his critics.
Yes, it’s possible that some of these cuts will do real damage to our social safety net, possibly too much damage.
But Cuomo has made a strong case that this is an existential moment, when the big question isn’t whether a prison closes or a hospital reduces services.
The question now is whether Albany will remain solvent at all.
He’s also arguing that this is a defining moment for our civic culture, from the powerful public employee unions to lawmakers and local government leaders.
Can they find ways to collaborate and share some of these sacrifices?
This doesn’t mean that Cuomo should have his way in every case. I think strong arguments can be made for a tax increase levied on New York’s wealthiest citizens.
And there are certainly other areas where this budget plan can be improved.
But my guess is the kind of “Hell, no” rhetoric we heard from Governor Paterson’s opponents just won’t fly this time.
That’s a good thing.
Instead of digging in their heels and pretending that we are still living in 2007, the big players in Albany and the North Country should swallow hard and signal to their constituencies that this year at least the game is different.