Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent State of the State address was an impressive presentation of his accomplishments over the past eight years and his vision for the next four. He showed a command of detail and a masterful understanding of government that is a product of his distinguished years of public service.
I’ve known Cuomo since I supported his appointment as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Washington when I served as a senator, and have watched him grow in stature and effectiveness through his years in Albany. I believe that what has set him apart is his willingness to act clearly and decisively and without political favoritism. During his first two terms as governor, that meant working with a Republican-led State Senate that often represented a point of view different from his own.
Today that dynamic has dramatically shifted, and Cuomo now leads what has essentially become a one-party government. That may seem like an advantage, but it can make governing more challenging, because much of what he has accomplished for New York has involved restraining rather than expanding the scope and cost of government. That’s been key to strengthening New York’s economic progress and its competitive viability.
In his address, Cuomo cited the strength of our state’s economy. He pointed out that New York’s 8.2 million jobs are a historic high, and its 3.9 percent unemployment a historic low. While the growing U.S. economy has contributed to this well-being, the governor’s careful stewardship of New York has made a substantial contribution, too.
His 2 percent property tax cap has helped alleviate crushing property taxes that have the greatest impact on middle-class working people and retirees. His administration’s careful management of the state’s expensive Medicaid program has brought down excessive costs. His budgets’ aid to local schools has been generous without breaking New York’s fiscal back. And in the process, he has found significant dollars for upstate revitalization, community development and badly needed infrastructure projects, from replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge to rebuilding the aging LaGuardia and Kennedy airports.
All of this has been made possible by New York’s strong economy, which has generated significant tax revenue. It is the goose that lays golden eggs. Cuomo proudly pointed to the state’s fiscal soundness and high credit rating. That’s something that must be carefully protected during these good times. But if the Legislature orders the spending floodgates opened with irresponsible demands for unsustainable increases in the budget, these gains could evaporate in short order.
Right now, the state is on a trajectory for continued economic growth. Amazon’s recent decision to build a headquarters in Long Island City will be a major financial boost to both the private and public sectors. Thousands of new workers will earn top salaries and pay big taxes. And if the financial markets continue to perform well, the state will benefit from large tax windfalls there as well.
But if the more radical voices in the State Legislature clamor for inordinately costly items like single-payer health insurance and other big-ticket expenditures, New York’s good times could grind to a halt, especially if our already high income taxes are hiked further to help foot the bill. People and businesses can and do vote with their feet, and other states are more than ready to siphon them away from New York.
What we’ll need over the next few years is a carefully managed set of priorities. Cuomo is correct that at the top of that list is the rebuilding of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s infrastructure. And his congestion-pricing proposal to help fund this needed spending is worth serious consideration. In addition, he and the Legislature should consider a modest increase in the state’s gasoline tax, with the revenue dedicated to infrastructure projects across the state. In Washington we raised gas taxes in the 1980s and 1990s. The sky didn’t fall, and roads, bridges and mass transit all benefited.
Over the next decade, New York is poised for continued fast-paced growth and progress. Our state has a highly educated work force well suited to the 21st-century economy. We’re blessed with many advantages that other states can’t easily match. Our governor has been an able steward of the Empire State’s legacy. The state of the state is sound. Let’s keep it that way.
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.