New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s take-charge nationally-televised coronavirus briefings look a lot better than President Trump’s rambling and often misleading and self-contradictory briefings. The contrast has led to comments by Trump himself, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, and Cuomo’s brother and CNN host Chris Cuomo suggesting that Andrew Cuomo would make a better Democratic presidential nominee than Joe Biden.
It is important to watch what politicians do, not just what they say. While Cuomo takes the stage to address the coronavirus crisis in New York, behind the scenes he is using the crisis as cover to push through draconian state budget cuts and authoritarian measures that will undermine health care and democracy in New York State. Cuomo’s proposed budget includes deep cuts to Medicaid and measures to kill third parties and make the legislature even more of a rubber stamp than it already is. Progressive tax reforms that would tax the rich more to help cover the revenue shortfall are off of Cuomo’s policy menu.
It is hard to know what is in the final budget, which lawmakers hoped to adopt on April 1 as I was writing this. The opacity of the whole process means, as the Buffalo News reported yesterday, “The full picture of the state budget … will not be clear for weeks after the actual votes occur.”
Health Care Austerity
Like Trump, who undermined preparedness for the pandemic by disregarding warnings from the intelligence community and public health officials back in January, Cuomo’s austerity policies over the last decade helped create the health facilities crisis New York City now faces.
Cuomo carried through health care austerity policies that were initiated by a Republican predecessor, George Pataki, through his Berger Commission. The commission recommended closing over 20 mostly public hospitals because they were a burden on the state budget. New York State has lost 41 hospitals since 1997. Since 2000, the state’s hospital beds have been reduced by over 20,000 beds, from nearly 74,000 to 53,000.
When Cuomo became governor in 2010, he appointed the investment banker Stephen Berger, who had led the Berger Commission, to lead his Medicaid Redesign Team, which recommended the Medicaid cuts Cuomo that made in his first term and accelerated the closure of public hospitals that depend heavily on Medicaid reimbursements.
For the 2020 budget, Cuomo appointed another Medicaid Redesign Team that has put into the proposed state budget another $2.5 billion in Medicaid cuts, which is 10% of the state’s Medicaid spending. Cuomo is so committed to the Medicaid cuts that he is willing to risk losing up to $6.7 billion in federal aid from the recently enacted federal coronavirus relief package because that aid is contingent on not putting new restrictions on Medicaid access. Six million New Yorkers, nearly one-third of the state’s population, depend on Medicaid.
When Cuomo first proposed his state budget in January, the state faced a $6.1 billion deficit. Due the coronavirus economic shutdown, the state now projects a revenue shortfall of up to $15 billion below the $88 billion in revenues projected in the original budget. As he has traditionally done, Cuomo is rejecting higher taxes on the upper classes through progressive tax reforms, including the stock transfer tax that is now fully rebated to stock traders.
Part of Cuomo’s Medicaid cuts shift costs to New York City and the counties. New York State is unique in requiring local governments to help pay for Medicaid. That policy shifts the tax burden more onto working- and middle-class people because local governments depend on sales and property taxes that are more regressive than the state income tax. At a time when local governments are also experiencing revenue shortfalls due to the coronavirus economic shutdown, Cuomo has no plans to increase state revenue sharing with local governments, which has been frozen in place since Cuomo took office as part of his austerity budgeting.
If Cuomo really wanted to save money on health care in New York, he would support the New York Health Act to cover all medically necessary services for all New Yorkers through a single public payer. The administrative efficiencies and bargaining power with drug and medical supply companies of a single public payer would save New Yorkers $45 billion a year, or nearly $2200 per resident. Ninety-eight percent of New Yorkers would pay less for health care, paying only progressive taxes instead of taxes plus private insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles and out-of-pocket for uncovered or out-of-network services.
As a public non-profit system, New York Health would operate to meet public needs rather than private profits, which drove the reduction of hospitals and beds. Though bills for this improved Medicare-for-All type of system have passed the Assembly many times since 1992, it failed to do so last year after the Democrats also became the majority in the state Senate.
New York State’s budget process already gave inordinate power to the governor, but Cuomo wants even more power over the budget. He wants to have the unilateral power to cut the budget during the year due to the coronavirus crisis.
Cuomo’s Democratic allies passed a rule-change resolution for the duration of the coronavirus crisis to ram legislation in a process that allows legislators to vote “Yes” electronically from a remote location, but only permits “No” votes to be made when physically present in the legislative chamber.
That rule change will make it much easier for Cuomo to push through his budget, which also includes a roll back of bail-abolition reforms enacted last year and a further delay in marijuana legalization. Cuomo could be bringing the same urgency and action to the climate crisis as he has to the coronavirus crisis, but his budget ignores climate activists’ demands for a halt to new gas pipelines, power plants, and other fossil fuel infrastructure to speed the transition to climate-safe solar and wind power.
Cuomo is also trying to kill third parties under the cover of the coronavirus crisis. The proposed change in ballot access requirements would increase the number of votes needed to qualify a political party for New York ballots will increase from 50,000 to 135,000 or 2%, whichever is higher. It also increases the frequency with which that requirement must be met from the gubernatorial ticket every four years to every two years with both the presidential and gubernatorial tickets.
The only Green candidates to pass those thresholds have been Ralph Nader with 244,030 votes for president in 2000 and myself with 184,419 votes for governor in 2014. Two percent of the presidential vote in 2016 was over 155,000 votes.
Cuomo was not happy in 2014 when I received 5% of the vote. That year Cuomo was trying to get more votes than his father, Mario Cuomo, ever got and more votes than he got in 2010 in order to lay the groundwork for a possible presidential run. Instead, in order to compete for the votes the Greens received, Cuomo had to stray from his centrist commitments to adopt some Green demands he had not previously supported, including a ban on fracking, a $15 minimum wage, and paid family leave. Now Cuomo just wants to eliminate his competition from the left.
As Trump bumbles around during the coronavirus crisis, it is not surprising that some Democrats talk of Cuomo stepping in to take the place of Joe Biden, the vacuous moderate who seems to be in hiding during the crisis even though he has the megaphone as the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee. Cuomo would be a more effective austerity autocrat than the ineffectual Biden and the incompetent Trump. Be careful what you wish for!