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Cuomo's third term : Socially liberal, fiscally conservative?

WBFO file photo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo begins his third term in office Jan. 1 with a planned address on Ellis Island, the site of major immigration to the United States during the 20th century.  The governor’s next years  in office will likely be spent seeking a more progressive agenda than he has in the past.

In 2018, the more left-leaning members of  New York’s Democratic Party was discontent with the slow pace of action in Albany on issues they favored, like strengthening abortion rights and legalizing marijuana. 

Cuomo, running for re-election for a second time, faced a primary challenge from the progressive education advocate and actor Cynthia Nixon. Cuomo beat Nixon by a two-to-one margin in the September primary, but six of eight members of a group of breakaway Democratic Senators were defeated by liberal challengers.

The Independent Democratic Conference, or the IDC,  had helped Republicans stay in power in the Senate. Cuomo for years had tacitly supported the IDC, until he engineered a reunification between the breakaway faction  and the rest of the Senate Democrats last spring.  

When Cuomo laid out his 2019 priorities in a speech in late December, he took liberal icon and former New York Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a model for his priorities. Cuomo said his agenda would answer FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, which includes freedom from fear and want.  

Cuomo listed many items backed by the left of his party, including codifying the abortion rights in the U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade into law, additional  gun control legislation and college aid for children of undocumented immigrants, known as the Dream Act.  He also proposed a fast track for allowing recreational marijuana for adults .

“We must also end the needless and unjust criminal convictions and the debilitating criminal stigma,” Cuomo said. “Let's legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all.”

Cuomo, in his first term in office in 2011, was fiscally conservative. He convinced the legislature to adopt a property tax cap and feuded with public worker unions over a plan to lower their benefits. The governor, in his outline for his priorities next year, still retained some of those views.

He says he wants extend a temporary income tax surcharge on millionaires when it expires at the end of 2019 and keep the property tax cap.

“We must maintain our millionaire's tax, also make permanent our 2 percent cap on the regressive local property taxes, something that FDR fought against for decades,” Cuomo said.

Ron Deutsch, with the union-funded think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, says Cuomo will not be able to afford all of the proposals he named in his speech if he does not expand taxes on the wealthy and add additional, higher brackets for those making over $5 million and more than $10 million  a year. Deutsch says he disagrees with Cuomo’s assertion that FDR would agreed with the current governor’s tax policies.

“I don’t think just simply continuing the millionaire’s tax will raise enough revenue to address a lot of the things the governor talked about,” said Deutsch. “He talked about the freedom from want and there is a good deal of want in the state right now.”

Deutsch says there are nearly 90,000 homeless New Yorkers and 3 million state residents living under the federal poverty level.

Cuomo says he can’t increase taxes on wealthy New Yorkers because they are already squeezed by changes to the federal tax code that will prevent some deductions of state and local taxes from their federal taxes.

Democratic political consultant and SUNY Albany professor Bruce Gyory says Cuomo is smart to strive for what he calls “political balance.” He says the governor’s mix of progressive social items and financial caution on taxes and spending helps him hold on to moderates in his party ,as well as independent voters in New York.

“The governor gave Democrats the best of both worlds,” Gyory says.

Gyory says Cuomo’s policies remind him not of FDR, but of another well-known former governor.

“I’ve always thought of him as almost like the middle-class version of Nelson Rockefeller,” says Gyory, referring to the former Republican governor of New York who served from 1959-1973.  “Nelson Rockefeller governed from the center out and was an enormously successful and productive governor.”

FDR, of course, went on to win the Presidency and was re-elected three times. Nelson Rockefeller was appointed vice president by President Gerald Ford.

Though Cuomo has been named in national lists of potential 2020 presidential candidates, the governor continues to say that he has no plans to seek that office and is satisfied with running New York for the next four years. 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.