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Losers in Gov. Cuomo’s Austerity Budget: The Sick, The Poor, The State of New York

Theodore Hamm Apr 7

Late last week, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed an austerity budget during a pandemic and an economic crisis. Although the Democrats control both chambers, they did not force Gov. Andrew Cuomo to include any measures in the budget deal that will help working people withstand the current calamity. 

A push to include rent freeze legislation stalled. Meanwhile, Gov. Cuomo’s Medicaid redesign will proceed, effectively cutting funding to hospitals when they need it most. No new taxes for the rich were included and marijuana legalization, one of Cuomo’s “top priorities” for 2019, was again left out.  

Given that it demands nothing from the rich, the deal aligns neatly with Cuomo’s neoliberal agenda.

The deal, of course, includes rollbacks to the landmark bail reforms passed last year. It also implements changes in the state’s ballot rules that state Democratic Party leaders have been advocating for in order to undercut the Working Families Party. 

Last but not least, the deal empowers Cuomo to issue quarterly spending cuts throughout the year, which the legislature will then need to respond to within a 10-day timeframe. A victorious Cuomo thus declared the 2020 legislative session to be “effectively over.” 

Given that it demands nothing from the rich, the deal aligns neatly with Cuomo’s neoliberal agenda. But the austerity budget would not have passed without significant progressive support. 

In the wake of his yes vote on the overall agreement, Queens Sen. Mike Gianaris, who sponsored the rent moratorium legislation, raised the unlikely scenario that Cuomo may enact a freeze via executive order. As Deputy Majority Leader, Gianaris likely didn’t want to undercut Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate’s leader, by voting no on a budget she negotiated. 

Meanwhile, Manhattan Sen. Liz Krueger, who’s been pushing weed legalization for many years, defended her support for the deal by declaring that after the “immediate crisis is over,” the state “must begin to chart a path… in which everyone pitches their fair share.” 

Such a scenario seems remote with Cuomo calling the shots.   

A different pattern surfaced in the Assembly, where a trio of entrenched Democrats — Felix Ortiz, Walter Mosley and Joe Lentol — voted no. Given their close ties to Speaker Carl Heastie, the most plausible explanation is that the three negotiated permission to do so because they face primary challenges from the left. 

As assistant Assembly Speaker, Ortiz could have been leading the opposition to a budget he rejected. But as Ortiz challenger Marcela Mitaynes tells The Indypendent: “At a time when we need our political leadership to advocate for working people the most, they failed us by passing an atrocious budget.” 

After the Independent Democratic Conference was vanquished in 2018, last year’s legislative session produced a flood of progressive measures. Now, amid a spiraling budget crisis, Cuomo has rammed through an austerity budget with the help of Stewart-Cousins and Heastie, who are functioning as a new iteration of the IDC. 

Why austerity is the wrong approach at this perilous moment is best explained in the dazzling speech Manhattan Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou gave at the capitol in Albany. She made a comprehensive case for why it is the blueprint of FDR, not Cuomo, that will lead to an egalitarian recovery. 

“This pandemic has put a harsh spotlight on a reality in which not enough has changed to meet the needs of today,” Niou said. “A reality which existed long before this moment and which will continue into the future made worse by the budget that we are being presented.”

Here’s the whole thing: 

Ted Hamm’s Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics is available for pre-order. 

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