New York lawmakers complain that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is injecting too many big policy decisions into the state budget — a favored tactic by governors who seek to use the spending plan as leverage to advance their legislative agenda.
The Democratic governor's $142 billion state budget proposal this year includes contentious proposals to raise the minimum wage, overhaul teacher evaluations and enact the Dream Act, which would extend financial aid to students in the country illegally. Cuomo also wants to include legislative ethics reform.
Any of those issues would prompt extensive legislative debate, and several lawmakers say they deserve separate consideration. Lawmakers may support one of Cuomo's proposals but not another. Lawmakers say they don't like the ultimatum, even though they acknowledge it as an effective approach.
"When the governor and the Legislature can't agree on a stand-alone bill, they'll put it in the budget because it becomes a take-it-or-leave-it," said Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, a Queens Democrat who supports the Dream Act but has concerns about a provision on community colleges funding. "It's very clever but very troubling."
The tactic is not new. Often referred to as the "big ugly," the budget-as-grand-compromise has long been a way for governors to compel lawmakers to take action on proposals that might not pass otherwise. Earlier this month Cuomo said the budget is the governor's "maximum leverage" in relation to the Legislature.
"In that exchange the governor can effectively say to the Legislature: 'Either pass my budget or shut down the government,'" Cuomo said.
This year Cuomo inserted policy proposals sure to upset both parties. Many Republicans object to the Dream Act and to the governor's call to raise the minimum wage to $10.50 statewide and $11.50 in New York City. Democrats oppose the teacher evaluation reforms, which teachers' unions say are too focused on flawed standardized tests.
Cuomo's inclusion of big policy issues also serves to divert legislative attention from the other myriad details in the budget, said Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Westchester County Democrat.
"I believe it's unconscionable that the legislative process is being short-circuited by including significant policy issues in the budget," he said. "It does demean the process."
The last four budgets were each adopted by lawmakers before the start of the state's new fiscal year April 1. It's been a point of pride for Cuomo, but the inclusion of so many contentious policy issues this year could spell the end of the stretch. In past years budget negotiations sometimes went on for months into the new budget year.
"Once you break the streak of on-time budgets, it's going to be tough to get back," said Sen. John DeFrancisco, a Syracuse Republican who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. "We're now in a situation where the governor is saying, 'I don't care if I'm going to get an on-time budget.' That's a totally different tone. I would caution that we don't want to end up in a situation like in Washington, where nothing ever gets done."
The details will be worked out in the coming weeks as leaders from the Assembly and the Senate hammer out a deal. Not everything in Cuomo's proposal is likely to last.
"That's why the governor puts everything in the budget," DeFrancisco said. "To try to work out compromises on everything."