EDITORIAL: Gov’s muscle grows

“IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING,” said the great philosopher Mel Brooks. The same line might work quite well for Governor Andrew Cuomo these days as he savors the power he’s recently obtained. What he’s doing with this power is already affecting our schools and possibly our tax bills.

For folks too busy staying warm to follow the news the last few weeks, state government is in turmoil. Following the arrest of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last month on federal corruption charges, Democratic lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Assembly, have quickly elected a new speaker, Assemblyman Carl Heastie (D-83rd).

But The New York Times and other news sources have raised questions about reimbursements for travel and other expenses paid to Mr. Heastie as well as how he handled campaign contributions. He deserves a chance to respond to these issues, something less likely to happen now that he suddenly has one of the three most powerful jobs in state government. Ahead lies the major annual function of the legislature: adopting a state budget.

Speaker Heastie won’t inherit the clout that former Speaker Silver had after more than 20 years in high office. Too bad, because the Assembly, led by Democrats, has fought hard in recent years to increase the budget for school aid. And the power the Assembly loses is power that the governor gains in budget negotiations.

That’s not all. As the Silver-Heastie drama was playing out, a New York City TV station reported that the majority leader of the state Senate, Dean Skelos (R-9), was under investigation by the same federal prosecutor who charged Mr. Silver. The sources for the story were unnamed and Mr. Skelos said he has not been contacted by the prosecutor, so this story does little but erode the power of Mr. Skelos by raising doubts about his future, even if there’s no evidence to support those doubts. Mr. Skelos is the third member of the three-person budget negotiation club.

The governor has taken advantage of this shift in power. In a recent speech he said final agreement on the budget might be late this year for the first time in five years because he won’t sign a budget until the legislature adopts his ethics reforms. He demands that all members of the Assembly and Senate either make public all the money they earn and who pays them or give up their right to hold outside jobs in addition to their elected offices.
Good idea. But Mr. Cuomo has made big promises on cleaning up government before and then not delivered or not delivered much.

The other area where the governor is flexing his political muscle is funding for schools, the biggest single slice of the state budget pie. His executive budget delivered last month calls for a $1.1 billion increase in educational spending but only if school districts agree to use student performance on standardized tests as half the grade for teacher evaluations.
Really, Governor? And exactly what part of the grade given to teachers for their performance will depend of the good example set by the state’s leading elected officials?

Put aside the verified and alleged corruption at the Capitol and consider standards of fair play. School districts across the state are now engaged in the preparation of the budgets each district must put before its voters in May. Usually by this time the state has released the annual “school runs,” the projected amount of state aid each district would get if the governor’s budget is adopted as presented.

Districts are required to use these dollar amounts as they prepare preliminary budgets. But this year the governor has decided not to release the numbers until the full budget has been adopted–the budget he says he won’t sign unless he gets ethics reform. Meantime school boards and administrators in this county and around the state are left in the dark about what to expect in state aid, while the governor brags about his proposal to spend $1.1 billion more on education.

If Governor Cuomo can use his newly acquired political power to achieve financial transparency and other meaningful ethics reforms he’ll have used that power wisely and will deserve praise for doing so. But the tactics used to reform the legislature are not the skills needed to improve education. That takes more that political might. It starts with patience and trust.

Release the school aid runs and don’t threaten teachers, Governor. Invite them to the table. The trick with power is retaining it. For that, restraint works better than force.

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