Building Cuomo’s New York

by Brendan O’Connor

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Earlier this week, Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, having investigated Governor Andrew Cuomo’s premature disbandment of the anti-corruption Moreland Commission, announced that his office had found “insufficient evidence to prove a federal crime.” After Cuomo shut the commission down, Bharara’s office issued subpoenas for its findings, which ultimately led to the convictions of former State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on federal corruption charges. On Wednesday, as Silver and Skelos awaited sentencing, the last man standing delivered his State of the State speech, calling for ethics reform and an extensive financial commitment to the state’s infrastructure. He was briefly interrupted by a heckler, Assemblyman Charles Barron (D-Brooklyn). “This is rhetoric,” Barron shouted. “Nonsense.” He was escorted out. “Just because you yell,” Cuomo yelled, “doesn’t mean you’re right.”

In the course of the speech, Cuomo expanded upon initiatives he’s hinted at or announced over the past week, including raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour for everyone (which placates the less radical left), a $20 billion plan to add a hundred thousand units of permanent housing all over the state within five years, and a $100 billion infrastructure plan. He also cried. “Life is such a precious gift, and I have kicked myself every day that I didn’t spend more time with my father at that end period,” he said. His father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, died on New Year’s Day last year, just a short while after his son’s second inauguration. “It was my mistake, and a mistake I blame myself for every day.”

Cuomo started hyping certain parts of his speech earlier this week. On Monday, Bill Mulrow, the governor’s secretary, told construction industry executives at the Mandarin Oriental that the infrastructure plan would be “the largest development in New York since Robert Moses.” It would also, he said, create more than a quarter-million jobs. According to Politico New York, Cuomo has proposed $22 billion for upstate roads and bridges; $700 million for the Thruway authority, which is building a $4 billion replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge; $200 million on upstate airports; and $1 billion to build an AirTrain to LaGuardia from the 7 train stop at Willets Point in Queens. Cuomo also said the state will contribute, in part, to the development of a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River as well as adding a new, $1 billion track to the LIRR’s Main Line.

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The centerpiece of Cuomo’s infrastructure plan, though, would be the redevelopment of Penn Station, extending it across Eighth Avenue into the General Post Office. At a news conference, at Madison Square Garden, Cuomo encouraged New Yorkers to “think big.” “What happens tomorrow depends on what we do today,” he said. “Let’s be as bold and ambitious as our forefathers before us.” Several plans for the redevelopment of Penn Station, through which more than six hundred thousand commuters and travelers pass each day (a number which is sure to only grow as the area becomes increasingly heavily trafficked), have been proposed. In the estimation of New York Times’ architecture critic Michael Kimmelman, however, Cuomo has not actually gone with the boldest one at all, which would involve moving Madison Square Garden altogether: “A new, 21st-century-worthy Penn Station, incorporating Penn South, and eventually accommodating high-speed trains, requires a coherent reorganization of the whole complex, with wider platforms; a safer, more consolidated layout to improve circulation; and more light and air. It’s hard to picture how any of that could happen as it should, with the Garden squatting on top of the station.”

In his address, Cuomo also directly addressed the city and state’s homelessness and housing crises, proposing to spend $9.7 billion to pay for ninety-four thousand below-market rate apartments, as well as $2.6 billion for six thousand units of supportive housing, which provide services like treatment for alcoholism and addiction and psychiatric rehabilitation. (Further, he promised to create another fourteen thousand units of supportive housing in fifteen years.) “New Yorkers have a big heart, but New Yorkers are also smart,” he said. “And society’s compassion must be matched with government confidence.” The governor has not yet established where these developments will be built.

Most concerning is that it’s not at all clear how the governor intends to pay for any of this. According to Politico, state funding will come in part by cutting close to $1 billion in state funding from the city’s budget — specifically by changing how the City University of New York is funded, and by forcing the city to become the only municipality in the state that pays for its own growth in Medicaid costs (estimated to be between $180 and $190 million in fiscal year 2017, increasing to $476 million the following fiscal year); and assuming control of the city’s STAR Personal Income Tax rebate.

In the first week of the new year, the new speaker, Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), proposed an income tax surcharge on New Yorkers making “somewhere around” $1 million annually. Cuomo has not yet responded to this suggestion, but has, in the past, consistently rejected attempts to raise taxes on the wealthy. The state and certain public authorities, like the MTA — on which Cuomo punted this morning — are limited in how much debt they can take on, and New York is reportedly rapidly approaching its cap. This means it is increasingly likely that financing the very grand and progressive things that Cuomo has proposed in his State of the State will require some kind of public-private partnership to avoid borrowing more money. A 2013 report from the New York State Comptroller explored the pros and cons of such partnerships: “It is important to recognize that private financing does not constitute a new source of funding — ultimately, the costs will be borne by the public.” An earlier report from the Congressional Budget Office, specifically addressing funding for highways, was even more cautious: “Private financing is unlikely to increase the availability of funds for highway projects because the revenues from taxpayers and from users of the highway are the source of repayment regardless of the financing mechanism chosen for the project.” Ultimately, the comptroller concluded, the public always bears the cost of public infrastructure.

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Taken together, much of what Cuomo gestured towards in the State of the State, irrespective of its long-term feasibility, would seem not only to further his project of undermining Mayor Bill de Blasio wherever possible, but also what some argue is his real project — that is, to consolidate power. His secretary’s invocation of Robert Moses — a kind of benevolent dictator who bulldozed innumerable homes and displaced countless people in the name of affordability, infrastructure, and the (white) middle-class — may prove apropos. So the question becomes: With two of the Three Men in a Room awaiting sentencing, what is Cuomo going to do now that he’s the only one left?

Photos via Governor Cuomo’s Flickr