Gov. Andrew Cuomo says Washington needs to drop $61 billion into his cardboard cup, or woe will be upon the Empire State. Scared yet? Because that’s the point.
While coping with a pandemic is a novel experience for everybody, buffering the effects of falling tax revenues by frightening people is old hat in New York. It’s a process that has been refined to an art form.
First comes the cash crunch — sometimes truly dramatic, like post-9/11 or during the Great Recession, but more often simply the result of the ebb and flow of New York’s dynamic economy. Then comes the scary stuff: “Nice firehouse you got there, Brooklyn. Be a shame if something happened to it. Ditto your libraries, Queens.”
The practice gives cover to politicians eager to move on to the next step — the protection of entrenched interests by expressing deep dismay, and then raising taxes. This is precisely how Cuomo came to balance his initial, post-Great Recession budget nine years ago: with a sharp “temporary” tax hike that remains in effect today.
Will the past be policy prologue, post-pandemic? Certainly, the process is under way, this time headlined by Cuomo’s demand for that $61 billion federal bailout.
“When you don’t fund the state, who does the state fund?” Cuomo asked during a trip to Binghamton Tuesday. “That’s police, firefighters. You want me to cut hospitals? Hospitals are the nurses and the doctors who just got us through this thing.”
It is, of course, far from certain that New York is “through this thing.” Almost as many medical questions linger as were present at the beginning, and an end to the lockdown in Gotham and its near suburbs barely is in sight.
But this much is clear: The state’s traditional methods of dealing with shaky budgets aren’t going to work this time. Albany can’t possibly tax its way out of its troubles, which reduces scare mongering to pointless theatrics.
Washington won’t be frightened. Cuomo’s hospitals and schools, to say nothing of his “police, firefighters,” are of concern mainly to New York’s belligerently partisan and so far dramatically underperforming congressional delegation. And until Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Jerry Nadler and the others step up to the plate, Cuomo has no legitimate beef with the rest of Congress.
Beyond that, Washington has been hearing about New York’s “needs” for decades — but seeing precious little self-help from Albany.
New York’s per-capita spending for education, health care and local purposes virtually always outpaces the nation. Albany nearly spent the then-fledgling Medicaid program into bankruptcy in the late 1960s, and the decade-long, continuing effort to connect the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal seems certain to become one of the most expensive public infrastructure projects in US history.
Special-interest pandering, union featherbedding and legislative log-rolling drive the profligacy. So small wonder that New York poor-mouthing generates little more than wry smiles in the nation’s capital.
Cuomo’s hectoring — and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s whining about unfairness — aren’t likely to change this. Yes, there will be some federal money coming, probably a lot of it. The House, for example, is proposing legislation that would deliver $17 billion to New York City alone over two years — and this, predictably, has Hizzoner drooling.
But it’s one thing to propose a pie in the sky, quite another to bake one. There isn’t likely to be enough new cash to close the budget gaps that are now opening in New York — and certainly not enough to insulate New York’s political and governmental status quo.
Cuomo and de Blasio both could go a long way toward strengthening the case for a New York bailout by pushing for dramatic spending cuts to complement new aid. Cuomo, for example, could bring public-employee fringe-benefit costs into line with the private sector, and the mayor could ditch ThriveNYC, the $1 billion mental-health boondoggle he created to keep his wife-cum-co-mayor Chirlane occupied.
Or how about New York attempts to reduce public-school spending to cost-of-living adjusted national norms? Public pensions, too? A serious effort to corral Medicaid costs?
The reaction would be volcanic, the resistance fierce and the outcome uncertain — but the message would be clear: New York recognizes the gravity of its economic circumstances and is willing to help bail itself out.
And it would be far more dignified than rattling a cup while awaiting Armageddon.
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