Gov. Cuomo’s Greatest Achievement: Achieving Virtually Nothing

Peter Rugh Sep 12, 2018

“I want to vote for someone who has experience.”

It’s been a familiar refrain this primary season. We’ve heard it spoken over coffee tables and barroom counters, on subway platforms and on picnic blankets, whenever the subject of the New York gubernatorial race has arisen. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s opponent is an actor, the argument goes, she doesn’t know anything about running the government. Cuomo, by contrast, is “someone who knows how to get things done.”

We at The Indy have devoted a lot of pages to Cuomo over the years and if there is one thing we can tell you that he is an expert at it is in fact, getting nothing done. If you are a New Yorker who rides the subway, has a child enrolled in public school, attends a public university, is concerned about the environment, the rising cost of healthcare and rent and is generally interested in preserving basic norms and freedoms in an era when they are under assault from the federal government, here is a quick overview of what Cuomo has not accomplished.

In an overwhelmingly blue state, Cuomo’s ability to thwart reform constitutes perhaps his greatest political achievement.

Let’s start with the state Senate, where, through his backroom dealings, the governor has given the Republican Party governing power, a true Herculean effort of apathy as you shall see.

Cuomo allowed the Republicans to gerrymander their own districts in 2012 while granting tacit approval to a group of rogue Senate Democrats — the so-called “Independent Democrat Conference” (IDC) — to partner with the GOP. This has meant that legislation that would institute universal health care in New York (something the governor is against), impose tighter tenant protections, protect a woman’s right to an abortion and strengthen ethics laws in one of the most corrupt state houses in the country has been dead on arrival once it has passed the Assembly.

In an overwhelmingly blue state, Cuomo’s ability to thwart reform and get nothing done constitutes perhaps his greatest political achievement. Political-reporter-turned-state-Senate-candidate Ross Barkan explained how the IDC arrangement works in our August issue:

In 2011, Cuomo and Jeff Klein, a Democratic state senator in the Bronx who has an affinity for real estate developers and charter schools, effectively collaborated to create the Independent Democratic Conference. Whether it was more Klein’s idea or Cuomo’s has never been clear — maybe Klein hatched the concept and found a willing enabler — but the aim became readily apparent after Barack Obama was reelected and Democrats won enough seats to take control of the state Senate.

Klein’s bloc of Democrats, then four in number, chose to align themselves with the Republicans to keep the rest of the Democrats out of the majority. This partnership brought enormous benefits to Klein and his allies, granting them all the perks of the majority: swollen staff budgets, funding for their districts and coveted committee chairmanships.

Cuomo, who has always been most comfortable governing in the Clintonian center and once proclaimed himself a “new Democrat” who was going to break the hold of organized labor on New York, relished this arrangement. When progressives cried foul, he could always blame the Republican-IDC majority for stifling bills. When trades needed to be made, he could claim victory, like when Republicans allowed Cuomo to phase in a $15 minimum wage in much of the state.

The evidence of Cuomo’s affinity for the IDC-GOP partnership lay in how little he did to thwart it or aid Democrats in their quest to take control of the Senate. As Democrats in 2014 battled Republicans and Cuomo ran for reelection, he half-heartedly campaigned for a few candidates and saved his massive campaign war chest for himself. When 2014 drew to a close, Cuomo still had millions in his account and the Democrats were swamped.

But all that’s off in Albany. Let’s discuss matters closer to home: the subway. When rider rage over train delays and the general dilapidation of the train system reached its zenith in the summer of 2017, the governor had the chutzpah to wonder aloud, “Who’s in charge?”

The answer, apparent to everyone but Cuomo apparently, is that he is. Of course, Cuomo knows he holds the majority of appointees on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA’s) Board, that he is responsible for overseeing its budget. The statement obfuscated his responsibility for refusing to invest in the 100-year-old metro while raiding its accounts to bail out upstate ski resorts and demanding that New York City contribute more to the agency’s budget. Straphangers in the city already meet more than 60 percent of the MTA’s budget through fares — money Cuomo has wasted on expensive projects that seem tailored more for flashy ribbon-cutting ceremonies than meeting actual rider demand.

Gov. Cuomo’s mastery of inertia stretches from the halls of power in Albany to the wobbly desks of New York’s classrooms to the MTA’s hell pits beneath Brooklyn.

Even while deflecting responsibility, Cuomo sought to alleviate concerns over the state of the subway by implementing an $836 million emergency plan. Okay, you might be saying to yourself, at least he did something. But no, the money was just a stalling tactic. Sometimes you have to do a little to get a lot of nothing done.

So far the agency has spent nearly $600 million of the emergency dollars Cuomo dispensed, yet the MTA’s own data shows that little to nothing has changed since last summer. Far from addressing the emergency, the funds — spent on new hires, repairs, operating costs and capital improvements — has simply managed to maintain a baseline level of crappiness, preventing the MTA from falling into an even deeper stink-hole than the one it already swims in.

Delays are occurring at more or less the same rate but the MTA is on track to update its 1930s-era signal system … in 50 years.

Andy Byford, who Cuomo appointed to manage the subway in January, has estimated it will actually take $37 billion (that’s billion with a b) over the next 10 years to overhaul the subway, but Cuomo has balked at dispensing the dough.

What is Cuomo investing in? Well, the governor has been a bit more proactive when it comes to education. He’s been pushing a high-stakes testing and charter school agenda on millions of New York school children and their parents. Testing and data collection contractors have made millions over Cuomo’s two terms while privately managed charter schools are increasingly sapping resources that would otherwise go to public education. Perhaps it is no coincidence that corporate school reformers are among the governor’s biggest campaign donors.

Meanwhile, Cuomo has run campaign ads this summer claiming his Excelsior scholarship, unveiled last year, is providing free college tuition to nearly a million students. The actual numbers: barely 20,000, thanks to prohibitive credit requirements. Student debt loads remain burdensome, while, as we reported this month, “just one in five students enrolled in [City University of New York] community colleges receives an associate’s degree after three years. At the senior colleges, 55 percent of students fail to graduate after six years.”

Bipartisan bills that would require the state appropriate enough funds for public colleges to cover annual increases in operating costs — salaries, rent, heat and electricity — have been approved by state lawmakers in three of the last four years. Cuomo has refused to sign the legislation every time.

Perhaps Cuomo figures it doesn’t matter. What kind of a future are these kids going to have anyway, given the dim forecasts of climate scientists are making these days?

In 2014, the governor unveiled a bold plan to fight climate change, New York’s Reforming Energy Vision (REV). It includes the establishment of a green bank, a grant program to help fund renewable energy projects and, most crucially, a flashy website to ensure New Yorkers the state is doing its part to render this planet uninhabitable by the time MTA fixes the subway signals. Behind the scenes, millions of REV dollars are flowing to Cuomo’s donors and community rooftop solar projects are being thwarted, as environmentalists run up and down the state, protesting new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Cuomo banned fracking in 2014 after facing years of intense activist pressure but has forced environmentalists to campaign just as hard to stop pipeline after pipeline carrying fracked gas into the state from neighboring Pennsylvania. The governor’s campaign manager is a registered lobbyist on behalf of several natural gas and other energy providers, including the nuclear power giant Exelon, which received a $5.7 billion ratepayer bailout from the Cuomo-controlled Public Service Commission to continue operating the Fitzpatrick nuclear plant on Lake Ontario. His previous campaign manager was sent to prison in a bribery scandal surrounding a fracked-gas power plant in Orange County.

We could go on. We’re just scratching the surface really. We haven’t even gotten to how Cuomo has partnered with state Senate to ensure tenant safeguards have eroded and rent is perpetually on the rise, a boon to his big-dollar real estate backers.

The point is, while you’re standing on a crowded subway platform, peering down a dark tunnel with no light in sight and wiping the sweat off your brow, don’t just curse global warming. Take a moment to marvel at Gov. Cuomo’s mastery of inertia, the power of its reach that stretches from the halls of influence in Albany to the wobbly desks of New York’s classrooms to the subterranean depths of hell. Ask yourself, is this the kind of experience we need? We’ve tried doing nothing for past eight years. But with the opportunity tomorrow to vote Cuomo out of his job, maybe it’s time we try another approach.

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Photo: While he’s gotten some things done, like building this bridge he named after his father and tried to open early despite safety concerns, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s greatest accomplishments lie in what he hasn’t achieved. Credit: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

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