Cuomo Buoyed by Record Ratings Seeks to Revamp New York Agencies

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, riding record approval ratings, may use his second year to consolidate agencies, raise the retirement age for new workers and lower costs for local governments as he closes a $2 billion budget gap.

The 54-year-old first-term Democrat has discussed his goals for the year, though not specific legislation, in a series of public appearances and interviews during the past month. Today, he plans to outline his 2012 agenda in his State of the State speech in Albany, the capital.

“He’ll talk about the success of Year One,” said Steve Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College in Loudonville, New York. “He’ll outline the budget in broad terms and discuss everything in the context of creating jobs and improving the economy.”

In his first year, Cuomo erased a $10 billion deficit, got New York’s two biggest government-worker unions to agree to pay freezes and furloughs, instituted a property-tax cap and pushed through a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the third-most-populous state. In December, the Legislature passed a Cuomo-endorsed tax package that raised rates on those earning $2 million or more, and cut them for the middle class.

A poll by Quinnipiac University conducted after the tax changes put Cuomo’s approval rating at 68 percent, two percentage points higher than the record set in July 2002 by Republican Governor George Pataki, the university said.

“He’s absolutely the most successful governor in his first year in recent memory,” Greenberg said.

Halfway There

The extra revenue from the new tax brackets cut the estimated fiscal 2013 deficit to $2 billion from $3.5 billion, leading the governor to say “the budget is 50 percent done,” at a press conference in Albany after the Senate approved the measure.

Cuomo, whose father, Mario, served three terms as governor, has said he now may turn his attention to streamlining the government.

“Next year, I’m going to shift to more of an operational front,” he said during a Dec. 16 interview on former Governor David Paterson’s show on WOR radio in New York City. “The whole system was designed at a different time and a different place, and it needs serious reorganization.”

Cuomo convened the 20-member Spending and Government Efficiency Commission in April to find ways to consolidate agencies. In a report released last month, the panel recommended that the state centralize procurement, debt collection and human resources to save almost $600 million over five years.

Union Opposition

The Public Employees Federation, the state’s second-biggest government-worker union, isn’t convinced the so-called SAGE plan will create savings, President Ken Brynien said in a statement e-mailed when the report was released.

The commission’s findings lacked details, “opening the door to increased patronage and cronyism” because the proposals could lead the state to rely more on private contractors, Brynien said.

Cuomo also won’t find help from unions when it comes to overhauling the state pension, which he has repeatedly described as a priority for 2012.

“Our pension fund is fully funded,” Brynien said during a Dec. 22 interview in his Latham, New York, office. “We’re trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist just because it’s a politically popular thing to do.”

New York’s $133.8 billion retirement plan, the third-largest in the U.S., was 101.5 percent funded in 2010, better than any other state, according to an annual study by Bloomberg Rankings.

Pension Tier

Cuomo unsuccessfully pressed lawmakers last year for a new pension tier for incoming state and local workers that would save $93 billion over 30 years by raising the retirement age to 65 from 62, increasing employee contributions and stopping workers from using overtime in their final years to boost payouts.

Local governments and school districts have pressured the governor to reduce the cost of state-required programs, such as pension funding. The issue has taken on more importance as they work to stay below the 2 percent property-tax cap that took effect Jan. 1.

About 20 percent of local governments have voted to raise property taxes above the cap, Kate Gurnett, a spokeswoman for Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, said in a Dec. 28 e-mail.

Cuomo has said he wants to find other ways of cutting local-government costs, too.

‘Too Much Government’

“We have too much government,” he said on Paterson’s show. “The overhead is too high, and we don’t get enough for it.”

One path would be to increase incentives for municipalities and school districts to merge services with neighbors or dissolve, Josh Vlasto, a Cuomo spokesman, said in a December interview in Albany.

Since 2005, the New York Department of State has given more than $51 million to 324 grant recipients to help local governments share services or break up, saving more than $560 million over a decade, according to Chris Valens, a department spokesman.

As state attorney general, the post he held before becoming governor, Cuomo pushed through the Legislature a bill meant to make it easier for villages to dissolve by lowering the number of signatures needed to put such measures on the ballot.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE