The media are fawning over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s performance on the national stage in response to the coronavirus pandemic. They’re ignoring the devastating austerity budget that he just rammed down the state of New York’s throat.
The $177 billion budget enacted Apr. 3 raises a few questions. How does a state with two Democratic-majority legislative chambers, a Democratic governor, and the fourth-largest Democratic voter population in the country come to pass a right-wing austerity budget? How does a state without a single Republican in statewide elected office grant the former chief of staff of its highest-ranking Republican the unilateral authority to make even further cuts to essential services? How does the most economically unequal state in the country refuse to enact taxes on the wealthy favored by even 87 percent of the state’s Republicans?
How does a state that is a global epicenter of a pandemic decide to cut billions from the health care of its most vulnerable citizens, even as patients die in hospital halls for lack of care? How does a state whose jails have the world’s highest coronavirus infection rates pass legislation that will keep tens of thousands of more people locked up before they’ve even been convicted of a crime?
Because this is Andrew Cuomo’s New York.
This year’s budget will determine how much the state will invest in fighting its worst public health crisis in a century. Yet even as it became clear that the governor was pushing for crippling austerity, the budget received almost no media attention. It was crafted in negotiations dominated by the governor, with virtually no input from elected legislators.
It passed the Assembly by just a single vote, but the vote count is misleading. “Leadership doesn’t need a unanimous vote, they just need to pass the damn thing,” one legislator told me, asking to speak anonymously. “Once they’re sure they have the votes, they start letting people off. Some who voted no, voted with permission.”
I asked what a budget that reflected the majority of legislators’ real view would look like. “Oh, no question,” they answered. “No cuts to health care or education. No bail rollback, or at least much less. Taxes on the rich. It wouldn’t be recognizable.”
“We need people in office that are not afraid of the governor. We have to be strong as members and, damn it, say no!” respond to ed Assemblymember Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn) who voted against the budget remotely because he was recovering from a severe coronavirus infection.
One way Democratic Party leadership forestalled opposition to the budget was simply by making it logistically difficult to vote against it: Legislators were counted as voting yes by default, weren’t alerted when floor discussions began, and weren’t told how to vote no. Another was by writing inscrutable legislation (bills are “purposefully made to be hard to read,” Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan told me) and not giving legislators or their aides time to read it. The text is often released a matter of hours or even minutes before a vote, state Senator Julia Salazar (D-Brooklyn) said, so legislators often end up voting on legislation without knowing what’s inside it.
Fear, intimidation, and pressure to conform also pervade the entire process. One legislator told me that bills they introduced in conference have been “allocated” to other legislators to sponsor because they’re “not enough of a team player.” Another said that Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has made it clear that anyone caught leaking internal discussions will be kicked out of the conference.
The strongest pressure, of course, came from the governor’s office — which explains some of the most surprising votes.
The second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Michael Gianaris of Queens, has a solid progressive record. He sponsored the historic bail-reform bill which was partially rolled back this year, played an instrumental role in defeating the proposed Amazon headquarters, introduced the bill to cancel rent during the pandemic, and is a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter. Yet he voted yes on the budget.
Why? Because the alternative was to shut down the government during a pandemic, he says. Cuomo’s top aide had threatened that failure to pass the budget would close the Department of Health.
“The whole process is a giant game of chicken,” Gianaris said, “in which the governor is driving a much bigger car than we are.”
Buoyed by uncritical media coverage, the governor’s approval rating has risen to a seven-year high since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic. Given his newfound popularity, legislators feared he would successfully blame them for obstructionism during a crisis if they resisted his proposals, and would ultimately end up with an even worse budget.
“The governor is flying high,” a legislator said when asked to organize their chamber to reject the budget. “Everyone thinks he’s the best thing ever. We would be destroyed.”
“We can’t get a budget passed that doesn’t cut health care during a pandemic,” another legislator said bitterly, “and everyone’s talking about his fucking nipples.”
A Murderous Budget
Imagine what a budget commensurate with the crisis would have looked like. It would have rescued inmates from death-trap prisons, canceled rent and housed the homeless for the duration of the crisis, protected residents of unsafe public housing, and invested billions in health care. And to pay for these programs, it would have raised taxes on the rich.
This isn’t a utopian wish list, but a set of urgent and basic demands that the majority of state legislators privately support. Yet the budget not only failed to meet these moral imperatives, but on almost every front moved in the opposite direction.
Even as millions of New Yorkers were unable to pay rent on April 1, Gianaris’s extremely popular legislation to cancel rent wasn’t taken up. Even as public housing remained unequipped for the virus, Niou told me that party leadership ignored her proposal to invest $3 billion in the public-housing system.
As food pantry lines stretched for blocks, the measly $25 million in federal funding won by advocates for emergency food aid was rerouted to the state’s general operating fund. As 108,000 hotel rooms sat empty, the state left its more than 90,000 homeless people in crowded, unsafe shelters or on the streets.
Perhaps most scandalously of all, even as patients died in the hallways of hospitals and their bodies piled up in the makeshift morgues outside, the governor and legislature enacted billions in cuts to health care. They cut $300 million from hospitals, hundreds of millions more from long-term care programs and community health centers that keep seniors and the disabled out of hospitals, and shifted hundreds of millions in costs onto localities that will have no choice but to raise the sales tax or cut social services to bear them.
The governor delayed the implementation of some cuts in order to accept upwards of $6 billion in emergency federal Medicaid funds which he’d been threatening to reject (and would have made New York unable to accept the federal funds), a concession that multiple legislators cited as informing their votes for the budget. That accepting billions in free health care aid was a “concession” gives some indication of the perversity of the governor’s priorities.
The budget’s cruel austerity could get even worse as soon as April 30. In an unprecedented seizure of legislative power, it authorizes Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, to make whatever further cuts he chooses.
In keeping with Cuomo’s long-standing tradition of keeping Republicans in political power, Mujica until 2016 was chief of staff for the state Senate’s GOP leader.
Pitchforks at the Gates
Cuomo defends his cuts as difficult measures necessary in a time of crisis. Those who demand to “be held harmless from reality,” he said at a recent press conference, don’t understand that “this is math…. you can’t spend that which you don’t have.”
Unlike a family or a business, however, a state government has an obvious way to cope in economic crises: Tax those who can afford it.
“What we learned [in the Great Depression] but seemed to have forgotten now is that you don’t cut your way out of an economic crisis,” Niou declared on the Assembly floor. “You don’t get people back to work by starving the engine of government.”
“Cuomo is the first New York governor in almost a century not to raise taxes on the wealthy during an economic crisis,” Michael Kink of the Strong Economy For All coalition told me.
Asked if he would consider increasing taxes on the wealthy, Cuomo answered: “I don’t know how you raise taxes on people who are out of work and their business is closed because government needs more funding.” He said nothing about how his budget’s Medicaid cost-shifting will force counties to raise sales taxes.
Cuomo is lying when he tells families he can’t “protect them from the reality” of cuts. He could, were he willing to ever so slightly expose his Wall Street campaign donors to that same reality. Ending a single tax rebate on stock transfers, for example, could potentially cover the entire budget shortfall.
The governor had a different attitude when he faced a $3.5 billion budget shortfall in the fall of 2011. “While I am against higher taxes,” he said, “if I were to close the entire gap by budget cuts, it would decimate essential services.”
That fall, Occupy movement protesters had set up “Camp Cuomoville” outside the windows of the State Capitol, demanding that the governor extend a tax surcharge on annual income over $200,000 that was slated to expire at the end of the year. Cuomo had said he wanted the tax to die, but in December, he agreed to extend it, albeit in reduced form.
But this year, organizers fighting for budget justice couldn’t physically congregate in Albany in the crucial final month. “We were planning mass protests, to get mass arrested, to shut down the Capitol for days,” Jeremy Saunders of VOCAL-NY told me. Online press conferences, social media campaigns, digital town halls, and phone banks were not enough to make their voices heard over a lionized governor with a daily platform on national television.
I asked one legislator what lessons the Left should learn from the failure to prevent this budget. At first, they responded, “There are limitations to the revolutionary approach. If you keep saying ‘no rollback, no rollback!’ when some kind of rollback is clearly going to happen — you give up your leverage, your seat at the table. And if you’re not at the table, you’re served for dinner.”
But when I asked whether ‘pitchforks at the gates’ could give progressive legislators leverage inside the castle, they said, “that’s exactly what happened last time.” The progressive victories in last year’s budget were made possible by an insurgent left demanding even more radical changes that gave the legislature leverage to steamroll the governor in negotiations.
“The difference this year is it was the governor threatening to burn down the house, not the DSA,” they continued. “And if it burned, he’d blame us for setting it on fire.”
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Jacobin.