ALBANY – The Legislature began its 2017 session on Wednesday with Republicans and Democrats in rare, early agreement: their relationships with Gov. Andrew Cuomo have soured considerably.
The tensions have played out via personal battles on social media.
There have been public pronouncements by legislators that Cuomo’s six-year dominance over the Legislature will be sharply tested this year.
There was a Cuomo staffer’s text to Assembly Democrats a week ago blaming the GOP leader of the Senate for blowing up talks for a special session in December.
And then there was Cuomo’s decision to give his annual State of the State speech this year in a series of regional speeches, including next Monday afternoon in Buffalo, instead of before a joint session of the Senate and Assembly.
Some lawmakers were upset at the snub, while others planned to boycott Cuomo’s State of the State if he does appear before the Legislature,
The battle has potential consequences for New Yorkers as discussions will begin soon over a $150 billion-plus state budget and an array of policy issues, from immigration and funding for legal services for the poor to whether to legalize ride-hailing upstate or permit physicians to assist terminal patients end their lives.
Lawmakers have been grumbling for years that Cuomo’s power was often too willingly ceded by the Legislature, and on Wednesday they provided offered pushback.
“It’s very simple. The legislative power is vested in the Senate and Assembly,’’ Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, told reporters after giving an opening day session speech to colleagues that was peppered with vows to ask “tough uestions” of Cuomo’s agenda and operations.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said his colleagues are “disappointed” in the Democratic governor for deals that never came together for a December special session. Among them was a pay raise for lawmakers and top state officials, including Cuomo.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve ceded, but usually you try to go along and get along,’’ Heastie said of lawmakers working with Cuomo.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan, a Buffalo Democrat, said the Legislature is going to continue working with Cuomo.
“But having said that, the governor has enjoyed an unprecedented long honeymoon period with both the Assembly and Senate. And all honeymoons come to an end,’’ Ryan said.
He predicted the lawmakers this year “will begin to reassert their independence as co-equal branches of government.’’
The signs of discord are on full display. Lawmakers were grumbling that Cuomo gave a speech Wednesday to a group of business executives in Manhattan at the same time – noon – as the Legislature opened its 2017 session and Flanagan and Heastie were outlining some of their priorities for the year.
Others noted they regretted giving in to Cuomo’s push several years ago to weaken the state comptroller’s oversight of some state university spending, such as major payments to Buffalo Billion and other projects that are now the subject of the federal prosecution of eight individuals, including people close to the governor.
In his Senate opening session speech, Flanagan defended the right of lawmakers to ask “tough questions” and noted how some – he did not specifically identify Cuomo – “freak out” when questions are raised over such things as Cuomo’s START-UP New York and regional economic development programs.
“Get over it,’’ Flanagan said to a standing ovation from his colleagues.
Flanagan vowed the Senate this year will demonstrate it is a separate branch from the executive. He started by raising questions Cuomo’s economic development programs. He noted, for instance, that lawmakers have a “lot more talented intellect and better understanding” of local needs than Cuomo’s regional councils.
Richard Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman, responded to Flanagan’s criticisms about the councils.
“Translation: Senator Flanagan didn’t get a pay raise so now he wants a return of member items and pork barrel spending. They still don’t get it and that’s why 70 percent of New Yorkers don’t believe they deserve a raise,” he said.
In his opening day speech, Heastie appeared to remind the Democratic Party’s base – the political left – that the Assembly has driven progressive-style policies, referring to Cuomo’s free college public proposal.
“The idea of college affordability started right here in this house,’’ Heastie said.
Heastie said the Assembly will push for higher tax rates on millionaires, a tax first imposed in 2011 but due to expire this year.
“We must tackle income inequality,’’ Heastie said, setting up a brewing tax policy fight with Cuomo.
Governors and lawmakers have tussled for as long as there has been a state government.
Tensions between the governor and lawmakers seem personal, especially since Cuomo’s appointees to a government pay commission last fall rejected a bid to give lawmakers their first pay raise since 1999. Some of the tensions are playing out on social media.
The Capitol Pressroom, a public radio show, used Twitter on Tuesday to advance an upcoming interview with Sen. Joseph Griffo, a central New York Republican, and his “call for a check on Gov. Cuomo’s power.’’
Melissa DeRosa, the governor’s chief of staff, responded via Twitter: “It’s actually quite simple: they didn’t get a pay raise.’’
Griffo responded via Twitter that DeRosa’s choice of words was “unfortunate rhetoric.”
“We don’t do it for $, we do it cuz we care but believe in balance of power,’’ he added.
“Yup. Sure,’’ DeRosa then wrote.
Over the weekend, Cuomo vetoed a bill requiring the state to take over the counties’ costs of providing legal services for poor people accused of crimes. Cuomo said it was unaffordable.
Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, took to Twitter on New Year’s Day.
“Too bad legal services for NYS indigent hasn’t got some infrastructure component or ribbon cutting opportunity,’’ she wrote.
DeRosa again was the Cuomo administration’s defender.
“Do you have $800M we don’t know about? Or are you planning to get it by cutting education funding?” [Glick is chair of the Assembly higher education committee.]