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Andrew Cuomo Sets Sail in Stormy Seas

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Andrew Cuomo is certainly serious about reform. His State of the State speech must have set a PowerPoint record, with 82 slides in all. New York could invade Canada with that many slides.

When Cuomo said the state was at a crossroads, a crossroads graphic materialized. (Unfortunately, the "crossroads" flashed to the audience was actually a fork in the road.) And when Cuomo described the governor, Assembly and Senate as ships passing in the night, three ships materialized, with Cuomo in command of the largest vessel. (Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos manned the other ships.)

Cuomo's first major speech to the public as governor contained no surprises. His plan includes a cap on property taxes, a redesigned Medicaid program, a wage freeze for state employees, the consolidation of various state agencies and major ethics reform.

"We're going to have reinvent government," he told about 2,000 people who gathered at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany.

Cuomo's delivery was mostly flat and wooden. He is not the compelling speaker his father was. But we remember Mario Cuomo from his great moments on the national stage. During some of his State of the State speeches, Mario was boring or rambling. Anyway, right now rhetoric is the least of our problems.

As he did during his campaign against GOP basket case Carl Paladino, the new governor dished out a generous helping of neo-Republican rhetoric. ("This is going to be a business-friendly state".... "New York has no future as the tax capital of the nation.")

The cynicism of the room to which Cuomo was speaking cannot be underestimated. Perhaps his immediate family believes that he has the plan, the personal magnetism and the mandate to turn New York around. But otherwise, even the most idealistic heart in the house remembered that just four years ago, we were answering Eliot Spitzer's call to arms and... you know.

And most of the people in the room did not really care, deep down, about the PowerPoint slides. They're fine if Cuomo never does anything more than paper over the great, gaping holes in the budget and keeps the state struggling, barely, into the future.

It's not their job to get the state on a sounder footing. Nobody gets elected head of a union because the rank and file thinks he or she is going to balance the state budget. And whatever you think a state legislator is supposed to do, the legislator regards his or her job as 1) getting re-elected, 2) bringing home some bacon, and 3) getting re-elected. And the people who donate to the campaigns and volunteer to go out and round up the voters are almost never doing it out of hopes that as a consequence, the state tax structure will be rationalized.

So Cuomo's multiple calls to arms can best be understood as bargaining chips. The union leaders can agree to cut back their members' benefits only if the governor can convince the rank-and-file that the alternative would be worse. The health care workers are not going to like cuts in the Medicaid program - unless they think it's the only way to fend off turning huge chunks of state health care to private managed care corporations.

When it comes to the legislature, the best chip Cuomo may hold is his call to reform the way the state redraws the lines in the upcoming redistricting. Reformers believe, passionately, that if a nonpartisan outside commission was in charge of redrawing the district lines, fairer and more competitive elections would send better people to Albany. They're probably right. Couldn't be worse.

It's my guess is that this kind of reform is way down on Cuomo's priority list, something he's prepared to trade down the road for a big budget heave on Medicaid, or a deal with localities that would wipe out tons of costly school mandates in return for a cap on property tax increases.

And you know what? Most reformers would forgive him. Just do one thing important and difficult, Andrew. We're too beaten down to hold grudges if the other 81 slides don't come true.