Albany Time. That’s what lawmakers, lobbyists, advocates and aides call the force field-like bending of linear progress that occurs around the statehouse. It’s why the simplest initiatives can be derailed by the smallest hiccups. It’s why no one has any real idea when meetings are supposed to begin, and certainly not—god forbid—when they should end. It’s what sends reporters scurrying around the corridors of the Capitol, buttonholing rank-and-file lawmakers for scraps of information, who, of course, don’t have any to dispense.
Even a few days before it was announced, it seemed unlikely that Gov. Andrew Cuomo would actually go ahead and summon lawmakers back to the statehouse to deal with the state’s growing budget deficit. It was getting too late in the year. The regular legislative session was set to begin shortly. Lawmakers were spread around the globe. The holidays were approaching.
By Sunday night, even senior lawmakers hadn’t seen the details of the plan
By the wee hours on Wednesday, the deal was done. No one in Albany could last remember when they had ever moved so quickly. It was, by all accounts, nigh miraculous.
“It’s really a credit to the governor,” said State Senator Neil Breslin, an old-school Irish pol who has been around the Capitol for decades. He looked almost giddy as he stood outside the chamber. (“First day back. Really gets the juices flowing again.”)
As the details emerged, the plan was hailed as a political masterstroke. The millionaire’s tax will be allowed to expire, as Mr. Cuomo had promised. Almost everyone’s taxes will be cut. The only people who will see a higher rate are those who make over $2 million a year—a group for which there is not a whole lot of sympathy right now—but even their total tax burden will be lower than it was last year. Republicans were brought on board with more money for flooded regions upstate and the ending of the MTA payroll tax. Democrats were lured with a jobs program for unemployed inner city youth.
The deal halved the deficit for next year, removing a major electoral stumbling block as lawmakers face an early election next year.
Democrats thought that Mr. Cuomo had succumbed to messages from Occupy Wall Street, who were set up near the statehouse and holding signs labeling Mr. Cuomo “Governor One Percent.” Republicans thought that by essentially ending the tax, he had taken a key campaign issue off the table and insured their return to the majority of the State Senate.
“What are the Democrats going to run on?” said one senior GOP aide. “Hyrdrofracking? Gay marriage is off the table, the MTA tax is off the table, the millionaire’s tax is off the table.”
And Democrats sat back and wowed that one of their own was able to allow both the Business Council and labor unions to declare victory.
“It’s as if Hank Sheinkopf were the governor of New York,” said one aide, likening Mr. Cuomo to the longtime campaign consultant familiar to anyone in politics. “This guy’s not even a politician—he’s a political operative.”
(In response, Mr. Sheinkopf replied, “I am flattered, but Andrew Cuomo grew up in politics, and I did not.” He declined to praise the deal further: “I don’t give blow jobs for a living.”)
That the deal came down so quickly raised the ire of The New York Times editorial board and good government groups—entities that Albany is not much used to hearing praise from, so no one seemed to really mind. And the accelerated schedule saved them from weeks of pounding in the New York Post.
“The masterstroke was the timing,” said one senior Democratic lawmaker. “He took a beating on the millionaire’s tax [from Democrats] for a year. Let it build up until Republicans realized they were going to get the crap beaten out of them, and then don’t have us stand around for days while the opposition calls everybody and their family to beat us up. Suddenly everybody was in a position they couldn’t refuse.”
Weeks ago, Mr. Cuomo had first gotten an earful about the millionaire’s tax from members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian caucus. Privately, he was complaining to colleagues about the pounding he was taking from the left. As the deadline for the expiration of the tax approached, Mr. Cuomo avoided what critics often see as his own worst instincts by overstrategizing and playing the game of politics too cute by half. “That’s always been the knock on Cuomo,” said one lobbyist. “The more elaborate the plan, the more excited he is by it.” Instead, he embarked on a PR campaign, warning New Yorkers about the doom approaching due to the deficit (doom that some lawmakers now say seems overblown).
Afterward, Mr. Cuomo held up the deal as explicit rebuke to the gridlock that Washington faces. It was not hard to see the similarities to Barack Obama’s promises, circa 2008, of post-partisanship, or even to George Bush’s promises, circa 2000, to change the culture of Washington. In Albany, the big issues for 2012 are off the table. No serious GOP threat seems likely in 2014 (what would they run on anyway?) 2016 is only five years away.
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