Even in a Pandemic, Andrew Cuomo Is Not Your Friend

In chaotic times, New York governor Andrew Cuomo wants to convince you he is the calm, competent leader you need. It’s been effective — so effective you might miss that even in a pandemic, Cuomo is fighting to protect the rich and impose austerity, including devastating Medicaid cuts, on everyone else.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo gives a daily coronavirus press conference in front of media and National Guard members at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which is being turned into a hospital to help fight coronavirus cases on March 27, 2020 in New York City. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty

Andrew Cuomo’s daily press conferences have made him the Democratic Party’s “most prominent voice in a time of crisis,” as certified by the New York Times. Cuomo projects the competent and candid tell-it-like-it-is tough guy persona that millions of New Yorkers and Americans crave in a time of panic and uncertainty.

He gives particular reassurance to those unnerved by the daily chaos of Trump’s press conferences, a contrast he carefully cultivates: “I try to present unbiased facts. I try to present numbers because people need information. When you get anxious, when you get fearful, when you don’t get the information or you doubt the information, or you think people do not know what they are talking about, or you think you are getting lied to … so I present facts.”

The message is clear. #PresidentCuomo, as a trending hashtag dubbed him, will give you the real facts where President Trump gives ‘alternative” ones; is even-keeled and trustworthy where Trump is mercurial and self-interested; knows what he’s talking about where Trump spouts misinformation and lies.

It’s an effective public relations campaign — so effective that you could almost forget that this is Andrew Cuomo we’re talking about.

The man who summarily disbanded the corruption commission he’d ran on creating when it began to investigate his allies. The man who made a host of videotaped promises in exchange for the Working Families Party’s endorsement only to turn around and break them all. The man who secretly worked for years to ensure Republican control of the State Senate, protecting himself from the flak that would come with having to veto progressive legislation.

And lest you thought he had turned a new leaf, Governor 1 percent is insisting on taking an ax to the state Medicaid budget even at the cost of $6.7 billion in emergency federal aid — and lying about it. In the most unequal state in the nation, he is fighting to protect the rich and impose austerity on everyone else. Make no mistake: even in a pandemic, Andrew Cuomo is not your friend.

Each of the half-dozen organizers and legislators I interviewed for this article acknowledged that aspects of Cuomo’s response to the crisis have been competent. But what’s lost in the rush to praise Cuomo is that he and his coronavirus task force (headed by former high-ups at MacAndrews and Forbes and the notorious Blackstone Group, whose corporate ties would have barred them from government service had Cuomo not used his emergency powers to lift revolving-door laws) have shown callous indifference to needs of New York’s working-class and most vulnerable citizens.

When asked how average New Yorkers can be expected to make rent amid coronavirus’s economic devastation, Cuomo claims he “took care of the rent issue” — but he ignores rent-cancellation legislation that is currently supported by dozens of legislators. He uses the pandemic as cover to roll back last year’s bail reform laws that have reduced the state’s prison population by thousands. He not only uses $2/hour prison labor to rebottle hand sanitizer, but also refuses to release elderly and sick inmates from filthy, crowded jails like Rikers Island.

And perhaps most scandalously of all, he continues to push to meet a budget shortfall by enacting deep Medicaid cuts rather than passing wildly popular tax increases on the 0.01 percent — even though this would require him to turn down billions in federal coronavirus aid to the state.

Last week, even as New York became a global epicenter of the pandemic, Cuomo’s “Medicaid Redesign Team” (MRT) released its proposals to cut $2.5 billion from the state Medicaid budget, including $400 million to hospitals as they battle coronavirus in the next year. Cuomo justifies the cuts as reining in out-of-control Medicaid spending. But as Roosevelt Institute fellows J.W. Mason and Naomi Zwede note, Medicaid spending is already under control; it’s been rising at the same rate as New York’s economy as a whole.

Dick Gottfried, the longestserving New York legislator in history and the Chairman of Assembly’s Health Committee, told me that “The MRT itself was what we knew it would be: a sham — theater to pretty up a bad package.” Its recommendations “are what we expected: a long list of proposals, almost all of them unjustified and damaging cuts to virtually all forms of health care.”

Gustavo Rivera, Gottfried’s counterpart in the state senate, offered a similar verdict: the MRT was an unrepresentative and opaque “dog-and-pony show from the beginning.” (Anyone who’s been upset in the last year at executive branch noncompliance with legislative oversight should see Cuomo administrators’ smirking stonewalling of Health Committee Chair Rivera’s basic questions at a January hearing on the Medicaid budget proposals.)

What makes the cuts particularly perverse is that they come in the middle of a pandemic that is exposing the horrific consequences of underfunded health care in the state. Decades of cuts to New York’s health care services, many of them championed by Cuomo, have contributed to the present crisis.

In a press conference responding to Cuomo’s budget proposals, nurse Sarah Buckley recounted how even before the pandemic hospitals were “already cut to the bone,” so short-staffed that patients often had to lie in their own waste for hours before a nurse was available to change their clothes.

Now, as Cuomo calls for retired health professionals to reenlist and orders hospitals to expand capacity by at least 50 percent, that understaffing and the state’s elimination of 20,000 hospital beds — which Cuomo has likely been the “single most important person” in bringing about, according to Sean Petty of the New York State Nurses Association — are major limits on New York’s response to the pandemic. As Gottfried put it, the cuts have meant that “at times like this, and even in ‘normal’ times, we don’t have the resources we need to keep people alive.”

Councilman Brad Lander told me how his son, who suffered from bronchiolitis as an infant, once had to be put in an oxygen tent at the Long Island College Hospital a few blocks away. Now, not only that oxygen tent, not only that hospital bed, not only the ventilator down the hall, but that entire hospital no longer exists. With Cuomo’s support, it was sold to real estate developers years ago.

MRT’s proposed cuts rely heavily on increasing local governments’ contribution towards Medicaid expenditures. This is tantamount to cutting services, Michael Kink of the Strong Economy for All Coalition told me. Cuomo has mandated that real property tax rates either decrease or remain flat each year. Counties can thus pay for extra costs only by increasing the sales tax (making poor people pay more for their groceries rather than billionaires for their yachts, as Kink put it) or by cutting either health care or other public services — schools, higher education, homeless and housing programs, transportation, public sector jobs. If the cost-shifts go through, Kink said, all these services would see “savage cuts.”

Albany, on the other hand, can easily generate new revenue to close the deficit without cutting a dollar in spending; Cuomo’s claim in Saturday’s press conference that “if I can’t change that [cutting Medicaid], we can’t do a budget” was patently false. In particular, as the governor of the most unequal state in the country, Cuomo could simply raise raises on the state’s wealthy.

A coalition of advocacy groups and unions have rallied around the #MakeBillionairesPay agenda of fourteen different measures to tax wealthy New Yorkers, including taxes on billionaire’s wealth, stock buybacks, stock transfers, yachts, and private jets (reversing Cuomo’s tax breaks on these last items). Passing just one or two of these measures could immediately close the budget gap. The whole package, which has significant support in the legislature, would provide upwards of $30 billion in new revenue. And the measures poll extremely well, garnering the approval of over 90 percent of New York voters, including 87 percent of Republicans and 91 percent of suburban and upstate voters.

But Cuomo continues to press cuts to Medicaid and other services, pandemic be damned, rather than make billionaires pay. His choice is “incomprehensible to me and my coworkers,” Buckley said, “who pack up our clothes when we go to work, knowing we might be there for sixteen or twenty-four hours, that we might bring home viruses that could kill our family members or ourselves. We cannot imagine how Medicaid cuts are being considered right now, rather than an extra tax on billionaires’ yachts and second homes.”

Perhaps the explanation has something to do with the fact that over half of New York’s billionaires on last year’s Forbes 400 list have contributed to Cuomo’s campaigns.

Governor 1 percent never fails to live up to his moniker, even in a pandemic. What makes these cuts a new low even for him, though, is that he indicates he’ll go forward with them even at the cost of the $6.7 billion in federal aid.

On March 18, Senator Chuck Schumer issued a triumphant press release claiming credit for the delivery of more than $6 billion of federal emergency funding to his home state, more than any other state. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) he helped negotiate included a provision that increased the federal government’s contribution to Medicaid expenditures by 6.2 percent. New York usually contributed half of the cost but now only had to pay 43.8 percent, saving it $6.7 billion.

You’d think Cuomo, who has repeatedly blasted the federal government for not directing enough coronavirus relief money to New York, would eagerly claim the aid. But the FFCRA included a provision to prevent states from using the extra money to simply offset their own Medicaid expenditures. The aid comes on the condition that New York not cut Medicaid — exactly what Cuomo is so determined to do.

And so at his first press conference, Governor Cuomo told millions of viewers that “because of a technical issue [in] the way the bill was written, New York State does not qualify for aid. That’s over $6 billion; that is a lot of money. And we need the federal delegation to fix that bill, otherwise New York State gets nothing.”

This was and remains a bald-faced lie. The supposed “technical issue” Cuomo referred to was in fact a deliberate provision to prevent state Medicaid cuts. New York does qualify for the money; all it would take to receive it would be to withdraw the MRT’s proposed cuts from the March 31 budget.

And yet Cuomo indicated that he was unwilling to do so, continuing to emphasize the need for Medicaid “reform” in the following days, insisting on Thursday that “they never fixed that [Families First] bill” and ominously warning that “everyone is going to have to deal with the reality, I can’t protect them from the reality.”

Today, he seemed to think emphatically repeating the lie would make it true: “The federal government gave us zero, nada, niente, zilch,” he declared, leaving him no option but “to dramatically cut our state expenses” because “this is math: you can’t spend that which you don’t have.”

He left unmentioned the possibility of raising taxes on the wealthy to meet the shortfall, treating it as a given that New York’s sick and schoolchildren would shoulder the burden of the pandemic rather than its billionaires and bankers. And he willfully ignored the $6.7 billion of emergency federal aid, knowing that to acknowledge and accept it would require holding off on his prized Medicaid cuts.

Take a minute to appreciate just how cruel the course is that Cuomo’s taking. It would mean ramming through $2.5 billion in cuts to the health care system that millions of the hardest-hit New Yorkers are relying on to get them through the world’s worst health care crisis in a century, while simultaneously depriving the same system of nearly $7 billion in federal aid. Even if he ultimately caves to pressure from advocates and legislators to postpone the Medicaid cuts and take the federal money, the fact that he was prepared to go this route — and that he’ll likely make deep cuts to education spending regardless — should open the eyes of even his most smitten admirers.

Activists in New York have our task set out for us. We must pressure Cuomo to accept the emergency federal Medicaid funding. We must demand that he make billionaires pay in the March 31 budget rather than cutting Medicaid, schools, or other critical services. We must redouble our efforts to pass the single-payer New York Health Act, replacing the profit-driven health care system exacerbating every aspect of the coronavirus crisis.

And we must remind a nation yearning for a strong, capable, trustworthy leader that when the cameras stop rolling, Andrew Cuomo is not on our side.