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Analysis: Gov. Cuomo’s Focus For ’12

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (credit: CBS 2)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — After a year of political wins including a cap on property tax growth and the legalization of gay marriage, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he even managed to surprise himself this year.

“I think it has been a remarkably different year for this government on every level,” Cuomo told The Associated Press in an extensive interview. “I’m proud of the way it’s acting, proud of the way it’s performing and I think performance is probably more important than ever before.”

He said he accomplished practically his entire four-year legislative agenda that propelled him to office a year ago. It included a rare spending cut, elimination of a near-record $10 billion deficit that he inherited, a 2 percent cap on the growth in property taxes, the gay marriage law, and, after dropping his no-tax pledge, a Cuomo-led tax revision that raises billions from a millionaire tax while providing a modest but rare cut for 4.4 million middle-class New Yorkers. His approval rating was a sky-high 68 percent last week in a Quinnipiac University poll.

So for 2012, he’s going to turn to tinkering and overhauling under the hood of state government, the way he does with his classic ’75 Corvette and `68 Pontiac GTO.

Not everything has been a clear win so far. Cuomo is still criticized for cutting back-room deals after promising the most open government in state history. His bills, including a much-needed ethics bill, have gaping holes despite the self-congratulations of Albany leaders. His income tax overhaul this month raised taxes on the very rich, after he promised no new taxes because they would drive employers out of state. His tax break for the middle class drew big headlines, but it will mean just $300 or so for most families, as he increases spending he vowed to cut. And his new ethics enforcement board has had one of the rockiest of starts, including holding a secret meeting.

But his public appeal remains near historic highs.

Look for hints of a second act in the weird way Cuomo unwinds:

After back-to-back private negotiations with seasoned legislative leaders and countless calls to allies and foes, he steps out of the thick plastered walls and 4-inch thick hardwood doors that protect his office to mull over the sanding and painting by workers in the Capitol’s halls.

He adopts the role of a very hands-on, $179,000-a-year laborer intent on stripping down and restoring the ancient pile of a capitol. His father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, used to nearly chain himself to the place 20 years ago with Andrew at his side, a 23-year-old unpaid confidant and strategist. Today, the younger Cuomo can be seen pointing out the places portraits should hang in the Hall of Governors outside his office, scaling the spider web of scaffolding in towers for a personal review or taking to the roof of the massive Capitol.

Expect more of the craftsman Cuomo in 2012 as he says he’ll turn from pushing landmark legislation to making the state’s massive agencies with 170,000 workers, an endless fleet of vehicles, banks of computers and tons of other resources work better.

“I like to build,” said Cuomo, who once founded a nonprofit organization that built homes for the poor and served as federal housing secretary. “I have seized this building (the capitol) as a metaphor for the whole process.

“To me, the place is entirely different than it was 20 years ago — not for the good. I believe there has been a deterioration, a pervasive deterioration in the performance, the integrity, the pride in the culture,” Cuomo said. “There’s so much work to do and people don’t even notice. In my mind’s eye, I see the building as it was 20 years go … you know when you live in a house for a long time and you don’t notice the paint fading and then you move a picture?”

As he did for complex legislative proposals, he now reduces the detailed problem of running government better to a simple proposition.

“You should reorganize first, then cut,” he said, turning on its head the process of cutting state spending over the past three years. “Don’t use the budget to make management decisions. Make management decisions, then do your budget.”

Cuomo was widely credited with doing just that as President Bill Clinton’s secretary for housing and urban development. He even makes a case that he might enjoy rebuilding state government, even if it comes with fewer headlines and less attention than his first year.

Cuomo started the year with a 70 percent favorability rating in polls and ends with a 72 percent favorability rating, a rare height and even more unusual show of staying power.

“The governor has had an incredibly successful first year in office from a policy perspective, from a political perspective, and from a perspective of how the voters of this state see him,” said Steven Greenberg of the Siena poll.

There are, Greenberg notes, still landmines to navigate.

Among them is whether to approve “hydrofracking,” the process in which chemicals and water are forced into shale to tap a natural gas reserve deep in the Southern Tier. It’s seen as a gold rush by some and a threat to the environment by others. He also will have to decide whether to accept or veto new election district lines. Traditionally, the majorities of the Senate and Assembly contort the lines to protect their power, a practice Cuomo vowed as a candidate to veto. But now these majorities are needed allies.

He also promised to create private-sector jobs. And if his legislative agenda is slim, he will be reminded of some big campaign promises that he hasn’t touched as governor. Key among them is campaign finance reform, desired by every candidate but few incumbents.

“I think Gov. Cuomo has a potential to have a very good second year,” Greenberg said. “But he also has the potential to run into some road blocks and start to see the incredibly strong support he has with voters weakening a bit. It could turn on a dime.”

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