ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — On Saturday, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo begins the job he always sought and few would want.
The Democrat immediately faces a list of musts:
–He must address a current deficit of as much as $1 billion and growing.
–He must craft within two months a 2011-12 budget projected to have a deficit of more than $9 billion.
–He must persuade New Yorkers to have faith in a government rocked by four years of scandals.
–He must say no to teachers unions, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and his own party when they fight his spending cuts.
Facing such unprecedented tasks, Superman might hit the snooze button.
But Cuomo, the one-term attorney general who dropped out of the governor’s race in 2002 because he lacked support, has spent the past half-decade trying to prove he’s more committed to fiscal conservatism and ideas like capping the growth in property taxes than to costly liberal causes. And he is convincing many he’s for real.
His inauguration was planned to reflect that: On Friday night there was a private family swearing-in, effective at midnight, with his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, at his side. A work day was planned for Saturday beginning with an 8:30 a.m. cabinet meeting. Work was to be broken up by a 45-minute public inauguration in the Capitol’s War Room parlor.
Cuomo’s first grand address will wait until Wednesday’s State of the State speech, which he’s already moved from the large Assembly chamber to a larger theater in the state complex in Albany.
Polls show strong approval ratings for Cuomo. The public likes what it sees in him, said Steven Greenberg, of the Siena College poll.
“They are cautiously optimistic he is going to set New York to rights right away, to set New York in a new direction,” Greenberg said. “They are going to look very closely to make sure he does that and not revert to the old Albany ways.”
The state is mired in years of overspending fueled by lobbying and campaign contributions from special interests, including the politically powerful teachers’ unions and other public worker unions. Deficits were run up even in good fiscal times. Crisis came when the recession and Wall Street meltdown cut deeply into revenues that could no longer match spending.
“On the state budget, he has no choice but to do what has to be done,” said E.J. McMahon, of the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy. “But does he make structural changes that are needed or temporary fixes to get through a crisis? He clearly is very determined. A lot of what he had to say in the campaign and since is very encouraging. The details will show if he is a permanent game-changer.”
Cuomo insists he is ready to make deep, systemic changes.
“This new year is obviously very significant to me as I prepare to assume the critical tasks that you have entrusted to me as governor,” Cuomo said in his holiday message to political supporters. “With your continued help, I know we can make a difference and, once again, make our state the greatest place to live, work and play.”
Cuomo’s relationship with the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate will be critical. He spent much of his campaign criticizing the Legislature for corruption scandals, some of which he investigated as attorney general, and for taxing and spending that he said are unsustainable.
“We know the deficit is big; there is a general reluctance not to raise broad-based taxes,” said Assembly Majority Leader Ronald Canestrari, an Albany County Democrat. “The situation is quite grave and serious and we want to work with the governor. … He has some goodwill built it, but I think he has a heavy lift.”
On his last day in office, Democratic Gov. David Paterson warned of the next big fiscal crisis, which he said will hit New York and other states hard in 2011. He said traditional public pensions systems can’t be sustained by taxpayers and drastic changes are needed, including compensation that more closely resembles the 401(k) retirement plans that have become far more common in the private sector.
On CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Friday morning, the Harlem Democrat who, like Cuomo, spent a lifetime in liberal politics, said the hard times force changes in governing.
“I don’t think I’ve changed as much as the circumstances changed,” Paterson said. “I think the foundation of leadership is that you lead to the period to which you are governing, not what your ideology is.”
Cuomo is trying to distance himself from Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer, also a former crusading attorney general, who had been Cuomo’s ally and later rival for power and attention in Albany. Four years ago, Spitzer held a grand outdoor inauguration in which he promised Albany’s fiscal and ethical morass would change “on Day One.” Spitzer had even higher approval ratings than Cuomo, only to resign amid a prostitution scandal within 15 months of taking office.
“Spitzer quickly squandered that, first with the Legislature, then government and political insiders, and then shortly after that with the public,” Greenberg said. “The public is hoping we didn’t pick wrong twice in a row.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)