We’re in a Plague — Yet Andrew Cuomo Just Passed an Absolutely Brutal Austerity Budget

The media is fawning over Andrew Cuomo’s performance on the national stage in response to the coronavirus pandemic. They’re ignoring the devastating austerity budget that he just rammed down the state of New York’s throat.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during his daily news conference amid the coronavirus outbreak, on March 20, 2020 in New York City. (Bennett Raglin / Getty Images)

New York State’s new budget raises a few questions. How does a state with two Democratic chambers, a Democratic governor, and the fourth-largest Democratic voter population in the country come to pass a right-wing austerity budget? How does a state without a single Republican in statewide elected office grant the former chief of staff of its highest-ranking Republican the unilateral authority to make even further cuts to essential services? How does the most unequal state in the country refuse to enact taxes on the wealthy favored by even 87 percent of the state’s Republicans?

How does a state that is a global epicenter of a pandemic decide to cut billions from the health care of its most vulnerable citizens even as patients die in hospital halls for lack of care? How does a state whose jails have the world’s highest coronavirus infection rates pass legislation that will keep tens of thousands of more people locked up before they’ve even been convicted of a crime?

Because this is Andrew Cuomo’s New York.

Team Players

At $177 billion, the New York State budget is larger than those of roughly nine-tenths of the world’s countries. This year’s budget was among the most important ever, determining how much the state would invest in fighting its worst public health crisis in a century.

Yet even as it became clear that the governor was pushing for crippling austerity, the budget received almost no media attention. In the month before it passed on April 3 the New York Times ran, by my count, only three news articles on it. To understand how this year’s budget came to be, I spoke to well over a dozen legislators and advocates engaged in the pitched battles over its creation.

This year’s budget was crafted in negotiations dominated by the governor and with virtually no input from elected legislators. It passed the State Assembly by a single vote, but the vote count is misleading, one legislator told me: “Leadership doesn’t need a unanimous vote, they just need to pass the damn thing. Once they’re sure they have the votes, they start letting people off [to vote as they wish]. Some who voted no, voted with permission.”

I asked what a budget that reflected the real majority view of the legislature would look like. “Oh, no question,” they answered. “No cuts to health care or education. No bail rollback, or at least much less. Taxes on the rich. It wouldn’t be recognizable.”

To Assemblyman Charles Barron — who, himself recovering from a severe coronavirus infection, voted against the budget remotely — this reveals the cowardice of his colleagues. “We need people in office that are not afraid of the governor. We have to be strong as members and, damn it, say no!”

One way Democratic Party leadership forestalled opposition to the budget was simply by making it logistically difficult to vote against it; legislators were counted as voting yes by default, weren’t alerted when floor discussions began, and weren’t told how to vote no. Another was by writing inscrutable legislation (bills are “purposefully made to be hard to read,” Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou told me) and not giving legislators or their aides time to read it. The text is often released a matter of hours or even minutes before a vote, State Senator Julia Salazar told me; legislators often end up voting on legislation without knowing what’s inside it.

But measures to keep members in line go far beyond logistical obstructions. Fear, intimidation, and pressure to conform pervade the entire process. Perceived agitators are quickly marginalized; one legislator told me that bills they introduced in conference have been “allocated” to other legislators to sponsor because they’re “not enough of a team player.”

The fact that so many legislators and even advocates asked to speak on background for this article is itself an indication of this climate. One legislator told me that the Assembly speaker has made it clear that anyone caught leaking internal discussions will be kicked out of the conference.

The strongest pressure, of course, came from the governor’s office — and explains some of the most surprising votes.

The second-highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Michael Gianaris, has a solid progressive record. He sponsored the historic bail reform bill which was partially rolled back this year, played an instrumental role in defeating Amazon in the headquarters fight, introduced the bill to cancel rent during the pandemic, and is a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter. Yet he voted yes on the budget.

Why? Because the alternative was to shut down the government, he says. Cuomo’s top aide had threatened that failure to pass the budget would shut down the Department of Health during a pandemic. “The whole process is a giant game of chicken,” Gianaris told me, “in which the governor is driving a much bigger car than we are.”

Buoyed by uncritical, fawning media coverage (this publication notwithstanding), the governor’s approval rating has risen since the onset of the coronavirus from its all-time low to a seven-year high. Given his newfound popularity, legislators feared he would successfully blame them for obstructionism during a crisis. They would be unable to hold the line against his proposals, they reasoned, and would ultimately end up with an even worse budget.

“The governor is flying high,” a legislator recently said when asked to organize their chamber to reject the budget. “Everyone thinks he’s the best thing ever. We would be destroyed.”

“We can’t get a budget passed that doesn’t cut health care during a pandemic,” another legislator told me bitterly, “and everyone’s talking about his fucking nipples.”

A Murderous Budget

At a moment in which New Yorkers have perhaps never needed their government more, the budget tells them to fend for themselves.

First, imagine what a budget commensurate with the crisis would have looked like. It would have rescued inmates from death-trap prisons, canceled rent and housed the homeless for the duration of the crisis, protected residents of unsafe public housing, and invested billions in health care. And to pay for these programs, it would have raised taxes on the rich, whose wealth will recover far more quickly than anyone else’s anyway.

This isn’t a utopian wish list (that would be far longer), but rather a set of urgent and basic demands that the majority of New York legislators privately support. And yet the budget not only failed to meet these moral imperatives, but on almost every front moved in the opposite direction.

One of last year’s historic accomplishments, in response to massive progressive organizing pressure, was a reform of the state’s bail laws. Before the legislation was passed, seven in ten of the state’s prisoners were sitting in jail waiting for a trial; unable to pay bail, many were locked up for the crime of being poor. By mandating release for 90 percent of arrests, the law stood to cut the pretrial population by almost half.

In capitulation to a fearmongering disinformation campaign driven by law enforcement and prosecutors, the budget rolls back the reform and massively expands the list of charges that qualify for pretrial detention. Tens of thousands more New Yorkers will be subjected to the possibility of imprisonment every year. For example, someone facing charges for a misdemeanor arrested for a second misdemeanor — say, shoplifting $20 of food — can now be imprisoned.

And it’s not just bail. Even as millions of New Yorkers were unable to pay rent on April 1, Gianaris’s extremely popular legislation to cancel rent wasn’t taken up. Even as public housing remained unequipped for the virus (“if the coronavirus takes off here, it will be like a bomb going off,” the New Yorker recently reported), Niou told me her proposal to invest $3 billion in the public housing system was ignored by party leadership.

As food pantry lines stretched blocks, the measly $25 million in federal funding won by advocates for emergency food aid was rerouted to the state’s general operating fund. Even as 108,000 hotel rooms sat empty, the state left its near hundred thousand homeless in crowded, unsafe shelters or on the streets.

And perhaps most scandalously of all, even as patients died in the hallways of hospitals and their bodies piled up in the makeshift morgues outside, the governor and legislature enacted billions in cuts to health care. They cut $300 million from hospitals, hundreds of millions more from long-term care programs and community health centers that keep seniors and the disabled out of hospitals, and shifted hundreds of millions in costs onto localities that will have no choice but to raise the sales tax (in other words, the price of groceries) or cut social services to bear them.

The governor did delay the implementation dates of some cuts in order to accept upwards of $6 billion in emergency federal Medicaid funds which he’d been threatening to reject (and would have made New York unable to accept the federal funds), a concession that multiple legislators cited as informing their votes for the budget. That accepting billions in free health care aid was a “concession” gives some indication of the perversity of the governor’s priorities.

And the budget’s cruel austerity could get even worse as soon as April 30. In an unprecedented seizure of legislative power, the budget authorizes Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Mujica, to make whatever further cuts he chooses.

In keeping with Cuomo’s long-standing tradition of keeping Republicans in political power, Mujica is the former chief of staff of the State Senate Republican majority leader. Absent additional federal aid, he will almost certainly use this power to balance the budget, as many advocates put it, on the backs of the people.

Pitchforks at the Gates

Cuomo defends his cuts as difficult measures necessary in a time of crisis. Those who demand to “be held harmless from reality,” he said at a recent press conference, don’t understand that “this is math . . . you can’t spend that which you don’t have. You can’t do that in a family. You can’t do that in a business. You can’t do that in government.”

This makes no sense, mathematical or otherwise. Unlike a family or a business, a state government has an obvious way to cope in economic crises: tax those who can afford it.

Roosevelt Institute fellow and CUNY public health professor Naomi Zewde told me that given everything we know about the role of government spending in recessions, Cuomo’s budget is “profoundly shortsighted.” As Niou declared on the Assembly floor in a moving speech, “What we learned [in the Great Depression] but seemed to have forgotten now is that you don’t cut your way out of an economic crisis. You don’t get people back to work by starving the engine of government.” And as Michael Kink of the Strong Economy For All coalition told me, “Cuomo is the first New York governor in almost a century not to raise taxes on the wealthy during an economic crisis.”

The single time a reporter at a coronavirus press conference asked him recently if he would consider increasing taxes on the wealthy, Cuomo answered: “I don’t know how you raise taxes on people who are out of work and their business is closed because government needs more funding.” But the only one raising taxes on hard-hit New Yorkers is Cuomo, whose budget’s Medicaid cost-shifting will force counties to raise sales taxes.

Progressives propose taxing the rich, not the unemployed. Ending a single tax rebate on stock transfers, for example, could potentially cover the entire budget shortfall and obviate the need for any cuts.

Cuomo is lying when he tells families he can’t “protect them from the reality” of cuts. He could, were he willing to ever so slightly expose his Wall Street campaign donors to that same reality.

But don’t take it from me — take it from Cuomo. Facing a $3.5 billion budget shortfall in 2011, the recently elected governor declared: “While I am against higher taxes . . . to deal with this emergency, short-term, we do need additional revenue. If I were to close the entire gap by budget cuts, it would decimate essential services.”

What accounts for the difference in Cuomo’s response to budget shortfalls? In 2011, the Occupy movement was out in full force across the state. Protesters set up “Camp Cuomoville” outside the windows of the State Capitol, demanding that the governor extend the millionaire’s tax slated to expire at the end of the year.

Political observers took it as a given that the protests were of only symbolic value. “Not much suspense attends to this struggle,” declared the New York Times. “The governor has made it very clear that this tax will die.” Two months later, Cuomo caved, and the tax, albeit in reduced form, was extended.

One major difficulty for organizers fighting for budget justice this year was that they couldn’t physically congregate in Albany in the crucial final month. “We were planning mass protests, to get mass arrested, to shut down the Capitol for days,” Jeremy Saunders of VOCAL-NY told me.

Organizers did put together daily Zoom press conferences, social media campaigns, digital town halls, and phone banks. But stuck in their homes, they couldn’t make their voices heard over a lionized governor with a daily platform on national television.

I asked one legislator what lessons the Left should learn from the failure to prevent this budget. At first, they responded, “There are limitations to the revolutionary approach. If you keep saying ‘no rollback, no rollback!’ when some kind of rollback is clearly going to happen — you give up your leverage, your seat at the table. And if you’re not at the table, you’re served for dinner.”

But when I asked whether pitchforks at the gates could give progressive legislators leverage inside the castle, they said, “that’s exactly what happened last time.” The progressive victories in last year’s budget were made possible by an insurgent left demanding even more radical changes that gave the legislature leverage to steamroll the governor in negotiations.

“The difference this year is it was the governor threatening to burn down the house, not the DSA,” they continued. “And if it burned, he’d blame us for setting it on fire.”

The New York political system is dysfunctional, undemocratic, and all but impervious to the will and well-being of its citizens. The task of the Left, as Salazar says, is to “politically educate the people on how decisions are actually made, in order to organize them against the real sources of power.”

If the public knew about this devastating budget and the system that produced it, there would be mass outrage. That outrage — and the outspoken legislators, adversarial journalism, and redoubled organizing needed to mobilize it — is needed for New Yorkers to wrest power back over our state. Our lives depend on it.