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Cuomo Quietly Pursuing Government Consolidation

Pat Arnow

Governor Cuomo recently announced that he would close several more state prisons, using provisions of a law that allows him to bypass the legislature.  It’s part of a pattern of government consolidation that the governor has been quietly pursuing since he took office.

Governor Cuomo announced four more prison closures this summer to take effect in mid-2014.  That brings the number of prison closures to 15, along with 7 youth detention centers, since the governor took office. He has cited a declining prison population due to a downturn in violent crime. Also, reform of the strict Rockefeller-era drug laws has resulted in far fewer drug related convictions and lengthy sentences.

The prison guard union has already expressed its dismay. Donn Rowe is President of the Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association of New York State.

“My membership is outraged at this point,” said Rowe, who predicts that correctional officers and other prison employees will leave the state.

At the same time he announced the prison closures, the governor also announced the shutdown of four centers for the developmentally disabled in Schenectady, Brooklyn, Binghamton, and Queens.

And, the Cuomo Administration is consolidating 24 in-patient psychiatric centers into 15 regional institutions rebranded as Regional Centers of Excellence.

Those closings are generally supported by advocates for the disabled and the mentally ill.

EJ McMahon, with the fiscally conservative think tank, the Empire Center, says the trend is “significant.”

“The fact is the state has more institutions than it can afford, and he needs to cut back,” said McMahon. “I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

Unlike some of the governor’s other programs, including his tax-free zone proposal or Women’s Equality Act, the governor has taken these steps with little fanfare.

McMahon says one of the reasons is because it’s not always politically popular to announce that a state run facility is closing down.  Especially if jobs might be at stake, although the governor’s correctional agency says all those working at prisons to be closed will be offered other jobs.

“He buried the announcement on a Friday afternoon,” said McMahon, “which is basically a way to ensure it gets as little media coverage as possible and which is probably testimony to the political difficulty of this.”  

McMahon, who is often a critic of Cuomo’s policies, in this case is cheering the governor on. McMahon says that while all of the closures announced so far will save around $90 million dollars, something he calls a “rounding error” in the $135 billion dollar state budget, he says it does represent a bigger portion of what is called the state operations budget. And he says it’s important to build “momentum” when making changes that result in less government.

Already state lawmakers who represent districts where the prisons are located are complaining. McMahon says the governor should resist them. He says there’s still a structural budget deficit of $2 billion dollars for next year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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