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Governor Cuomo's Budget Plan Proposes Major Policy Shifts in Albany

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wamc/local-wamc-1000520.mp3

Albany, NY – Governor Cuomo is for the second year in a row asking the state legislature to enact some changes that promise to shake up business as usual at the Capitol. While, the governor was successful in persuading the legislature to adopt his ideas during his first year in office, it's not yet known whether he have as much luck in the second year.

Cuomo's budget plan contains at least two major policy shifts that the governor admits "pose dramatic change" that will unsettle the "big players" in Albany.

First, the governor wants lawmakers to depart from a decades-long policy on pensions, and for the first time, offer the option of a 401k style defined benefits plan for new state workers.

"We're only talking about future employees who may be hired," Cuomo said. "I call them the unborn."

The proposal was met with condemnation from state worker union leaders, who called it a "cheap shot" and said it offers a "false choice."

Cuomo is also trying to shake up education policy, by threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in increases in school aid from schools that don't agree on teacher evaluation plans with teachers. The failure so far to agree on the teacher evaluation plans is also jeopardizing up to a billion dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.

"No evaluation, no money, period," Cuomo said.

Cuomo's plan was panned by the School Boards Association, which said schools would be forced to "succumb to union demands just to avoid the loss of funding," and New York State United Teachers, which called the plan "problematic," and said it would create "uncertainty."

The governor, setting aside his power point presentation at the end of his budget address, asked lawmakers directly to support his policies, saying he understands the politics, but "we have to do this."

"We don't really have a choice anyway," Cuomo aid. "But if we leave the status quo we then will have failed also. Then we will have become part of the problem."

In both proposals, Cuomo is taking on powerful unions of state workers and teachers, who have long been allies of the Democrats who lead the Assembly and even Republicans who in charge of the state Senate. It's an election year for all 212 members of the legislature, and unions often provide support for field campaigns in the form of volunteers to staff phone banks and to drop off campaign literature door to door.

Despite that, legislative leaders did not rule out backing Cuomo's plans.

Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos worked cooperatively with the Democratic governor last year to enact a property tax cap. He also permitted the historic Senate vote on gay marriage, even though Skelos personally opposes same sex marriage. The Senate leader predicts that the budget will once again be on time, and that the legislature will ultimately approve Cuomo's proposal for a new pension tier with fewer benefits for future workers.

"I believe there will be a three way agreement on pension reform," said Skelos. "Which is significant."

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who made a point recently of speaking to a rally organized by a group tied to the teachers union, says he thinks Cuomo's plan to force teacher evaluation agreements makes sense.

"He's on target," said Silver. "It gives the incentive to both sides in the collective bargaining process to come to an agreement."

Although the governor's policies, if enacted, will likely anger many established groups in Albany, lawmakers may conclude that they are taking an even greater chance if they alienate the extremely popular governor.

In Albany, I'm Karen DeWitt.