When Gov. Andrew Cuomo was first elected in 2010, he vowed to bring Albany back to the days when other local governments and federal agencies modeled their programs after New York.
“The dysfunction of Albany, the gridlock of Albany, the corruption of Albany, this is not the true story of the New York State Legislature,” he told hundreds gathered for his first State of the State address in a convention center near the Capitol. “It’s not who we are, it’s not what we do, it’s not why we’re here.”
He vowed to lower taxes, freeze state worker pay and to shrink the number of state agencies. The former New York attorney general also promised to reform the state’s juvenile justice system. And he largely delivered budgets on time, after years of dysfunction.
That all essentially happened during his first few years in office. But as the economy improved, Cuomo’s message and policies shifted.
In the more than decade since he became the state’s top official, Cuomo has made many more promises, some of which came to fruition, while others remain outstanding as New York pushes its way out of the pandemic.
Here’s a look at some of the 63-year-old Democrat’s accomplishments — and his unfinished business, with Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul set to replace him Aug. 24.
Marriage Equality Passed
Perhaps Cuomo’s biggest accomplishment in office came in his first year when he pushed through a measure legalizing same-sex marriage. The bill squeaked through the then-Republican controlled State Senate by a vote of 33 to 29.
At the time, just five other states had similar legislation on the books and the U.S. Supreme Court hadn’t yet made the ability for same-sex couple to wed the the law of the land. New York’s Catholic bishops slammed the New York vote shepherded through by Cuomo, a Catholic who urged other states to follow his lead.
The move led to thousands of same-sex marriages, as many couples who had waited years to make their unions officials rushed to tie the knot. Demand was so high that state officials initially thought they’d need to run a lottery for couples looking to marry on the first day possible. A few town clerks resigned and one refused to sign same-sex marriage certificates citing religious concerns.
Gun Control Progress
The legislation came about a month after a mentally ill man killed 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012. The bills also made it more difficult for mentally ill people to get guns and added tougher penalties for people using guns for crimes.
The National Rifle Association vehemently opposed the measures, which were passed without the required three-day wait period after Cuomo declared gun violence an emergency. The legislation was written so fast lawmakers weeks later were forced to adjust some of the language, including excluding ammo limits for cops.
Cuomo last month declared another state of emergency over a spike of gun violence since the pandemic hit. He signed legislation to let victims of shootings sue gun hawkers and manufacturers if they act irresponsibly without following basic checks to make sure their products are not sold illegally in New York. The law is a response to a 2005 federal rule limiting those types of lawsuits.
The $15 Minimum Wage
In 2016, Cuomo signed a bill to gradually establish a $15 minimum wage for all workers in the state. The increase, at the time, was higher than most states and was hailed by worker rights advocates — including those pushing for higher wages for fast food workers who had gone on strike throughout the country.
The state’s minimum wage of $8.75 created a pool of working poor, Cuomo said, noting it was impossible to provide for a family earning $18,000 a year. The federal minimum wage was stuck at $7.25 an hour at the time.
The New York State wage hike was lauded by one of the state’s most powerful union leaders, George Gresham, the president of 1199 S.E.I.U., which represents home-care workers. The gradual approach, in which upstate areas had more time before increases kicked in, marked a compromise deal reached with GOP lawmakers who argued small businesses in some rural areas couldn’t afford the wage hike.
Clemency Reform Lagged
In October 2015, Cuomo promised to reform the clemency process by reviewing applications four times a year and making lawyers available to prisoners seeking to apply. None of that happened.
Cuomo granted 31 commutations, shortening sentences to either provide for incarcerated people’s release or to make them eligible for parole hearings.
That pales in comparison to some other Democratic governors. Former California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted 154 sentences during his 16 years in office. New York Gov. Hugh Carey granted 155 commutations during his two terms from 1975 to 1982. Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, issued 37 commutations during his three terms as New York governor from 1983 to 1994.
Anti-Corruption Commission Scrapped
One bit of Cuomo’s unfinished business wound up getting completed by federal prosecutors after he unceremoniously shut down the anti-corruption Moreland Commission he had created.
In 2013, after the Legislature refused to pass ethics reforms he was pushing, such as limiting their outside employment and restricting big money campaign donations, Cuomo turned to Plan B: He formed the 25-member commission, made up of prosecutors and ethics experts, to investigate the pervasive taint of corruption that had bedevilled Albany for decades.
The governor initially proclaimed the group had jurisdiction to investigate anybody — including him. But within a year, reports surfaced that his chief of staff, Larry Schwartz, had pushed commission members to back off subpoenaing the Real Estate Board of New York, whose deep-pocketed members were consistent Cuomo campaign donors.
Then in April 2014, Cuomo suddenly pulled the plug on the commission after the Legislature passed some of his ethics reforms. In response, then-Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara seized the commission’s files and took over some of its in-progress investigations.
“I don’t know what went on and what deals were struck,” Bharara said at the time. “There was an appearance that cases were being bargained away in exchange for a political deal.”
Ultimately federal prosecutors were able to use some of the Moreland Commission’s work to win corruption cases against then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and Senate Pro Temp Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican.
Education Funding Shortchange
Cuomo’s most notable impact on education might very well be something he didn’t do, according to critics: Fully comply with a 2007 court order that found the state was shortchanging the city’s public schools to the tune of billions of dollars per year.
While the state Legislature plays a significant role in crafting New York’s annual budget, critics and advocates say Cuomo played an outsized role in preventing the awarding of additional funding to school districts with high-need students under the ruling, known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
“For years the governor seemed to discuss education reform under the lens of charter schools, when in reality children in New York never experienced a fully-funded school system that accounted for their needs,” said City Council education committee chair Mark Tregyer (D-Brooklyn), a former high school teacher. “It was just basically having a debate with a person in an alternate universe.”
Advocates say it wasn’t until this year, when Cuomo was weakened by the investigations into his conduct and when federal funding materialized in the wake of the pandemic, that the state legislature was able to right the longtime wrong.
This year’s budget agreement called for filling the schools funding gap over three years — with 50% of the additional funding coming in the first year.
Pre-K Tax Fight
When Bill de Blasio was elected mayor in 2013 he promised to make full-day prekindergarten classes free for all New Yorkers by raising taxes on the wealthy. Instead, Cuomo, who was facing re-election, pushed to lower taxes.
“Our tax package is not an advocacy statement,” Cuomo said during a January 2014 budget address. “It’s not a package that has been put together to provoke. It’s a package that has been put together to pass.”
The budget that year included $300 million for Pre-K. But de Blasio and other critics of the package noted it would strain the state’s coffers without a specific tax funding it.
That 2014 budget also includes a new property tax rebate for homeowners outside of New York City and a modest tax credit for some homeowners and renters in the city. It also decreased the corporate tax income rate and taxes paid by manufacturers.
For a decade, Cuomo resisted raising taxes on the wealthy, pushing back multiple campaigns led by de Blasio and other left leaning lawmakers. He argued that raising taxes would scare away wealthy business owners and deplete the tax base. Economists questioned whether there’d be a massive exodus.
In April, the State Legislature passed a so-called “Millionaires Tax” that is expected to generate $4.3 billion annually.
Based on the new system, people making more than $1 million each year and couples who make more than $2 million a year will see their income tax rate go up to 9.65% from 8.82%. The super-rich will absorb even bigger hikes, with a 10.3% tax for people making more than $5 million a year and 10.9% for those with incomes over $25 million.
A NYCHA Change of Heart
In his first five years as governor, Cuomo continued Albany’s practice of not sending a nickel to the New York City Housing Authority, despite its dire need for cash to upgrade deteriorating apartments.
Then in 2015, Cuomo got religion.
That year, he suddenly began appearing at NYCHA developments, castigating his usual scapegoat, de Blasio, for his failure to confront disastrous and dangerous living conditions facing many of NYCHA’s 400,000 tenants.
Cuomo proposed putting $100 million in state funds for public housing in New York City — prompting NYCHA and the state Dormitory Authority to immediately begin mapping how to spend the money at 18 developments where the roofs had been deemed “at or past useful life.”
But after roof fix plans had already been drafted, Cuomo reversed course and instead steered the money to state lawmakers for their pet NYCHA projects. Roof repairs were put on permanent hold. As of March, only $87 million of that original allocation had actually been spent, primarily on security and quality-of-life enhancements.
This was the pattern with Cuomo: Again and again, he followed up with more promised money, but wouldn’t turn it over because until NYCHA could assure him it could spend the funds efficiently and quickly.
And so in 2017 and then again 2018, he promised two more allocations totaling another $450 million — and later told NYCHA to spend its own money up front and be reimbursed by the state. As a result, NYCHA only began receiving that money for boiler and elevator upgrades early this year.
And finally in June 2019, the Legislature approved another $100 million Cuomo added for lead paint abatement. But as of March, a spending plan for that had yet to be approved. None of that money has been spent.
Supportive Housing Falls Short
Cuomo has a long history of confronting New York’s homeless crisis, creating the non-profit Help USA decades ago and serving as secretary of Housing & Urban Development during the Clinton administration.
But one of his signature promises on that issue will not come to be on his watch.
In January 2016, Cuomo pledged that over 15 years, he would create 20,000 units of what’s known as “supportive housing,” which provides lodging plus social services for formerly homeless individuals who struggle with mental health issues.
In New York City, that was a particularly essential need given the spike in the number of homeless with mental health crises avoiding city shelters they felt were unsafe and choosing instead to live on the streets.
But the job is nowhere near complete. In his 2018 budget, Cuomo funded 6,000 of those units through 2020. As of last week his administration had provided operating funds for a total of 5,400 of those units. In December, housing advocates called on Cuomo to keep his original promise when they learned he’d set aside no new funding for the program.
New York “committed five years of dedicated funding, but that funding has now dried up — right when the need is greatest,” a group of advocates called Faith Leaders 4 Housing wrote.
Last week, the governor announced he was adding another $35 million to create 1,400 more units. But it was only a one-year commitment instead of the five-year promise sought by the advocates.