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Cuomo turns to emergency fiscal plan, tax cap

ALBANY — With the inaugural parties over, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was in his office working on an emergency plan to reduce the size of government and to push his major priority of a cap on property tax growth.

Cuomo also issued an executive order requiring top executive branch officials to undergo ethics training that must begin by Jan. 31 and to be re-certified every two years to work in what has been a scandal-plagued state government.

“Honor and integrity will be a hallmark of this administration,” Cuomo said Sunday. “Top government employees should have no questions, no gray areas and no possibility of confusion regarding what is proper and what is not.”

Dick Dadey, the executive director of the Citizens Union good-government group, said Cuomo’s mandate from voters “to fix Albany has taken one more step forward today.”

A day after his scaled-down inauguration, Cuomo, a Democrat, was working on what he promised would be a financial reinvention plan for government. It is expected to be a major element Wednesday in his State of the State address, which will reveal the broad plans of his budget proposal due Feb. 1. That budget of more than $130 billion is expected to include more than $10 billion in deficits.

Cuomo is braced for the formidable fight by public employee unions, health care interests and others seeking to protect their jobs and the level of services they provide, often as the major employer in local economies.

“It’s going to be a very difficult budget because it’s a difficult economy and because the state, the people of the state, have a difficult problem dealing with the deficit,” Cuomo told reporters after his inaugural speech, which in part targeted special interests. “This is going to be a very difficult conversation, there’s no doubt about that.”

Cuomo hasn’t wavered from similar tough talk he made on the trail in his campaign, much of which was funded by millions of dollars from those special interests.

Cuomo said he will seek to reduce the hundreds of departments, agencies and authorities that constitute state government. Although he is enforcing about 900 layoffs ordered by former Democratic Gov. David Paterson, Cuomo hasn’t said whether he will require more layoffs among the more than 180,000 state employees.

Most of those proposals will require support of legislators who, like the governor, fill patronage jobs as political payback in those agencies, departments and authorities.

Cuomo, a former state attorney general, also is seeking a quick deal to cap the growth of local property taxes.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Nassau County Republican, said the understanding they had was “we want to get it done early, early in the session.”

“I think the governor is there and we should start negotiations on it with the speaker right away,” he said.

Cuomo reaffirmed his commitment to a cap in the growth in school and local government property taxes, which in the suburbs of New York City is among the highest in the nation. School taxes alone have often risen by more than 5 percent a year even at times of record increases in state funding.

Cuomo spoke of Long Islanders “imprisoned” in their homes by unaffordable taxes at a time when property values have fallen below what they owe in their mortgages.

Cuomo’s proposal would limit growth to 2 percent or inflation, whichever is lower. He includes an option for voters to override the cap and lifting the cap for extraordinary expenses.

Skelos said after Cuomo’s inauguration that “people are looking for results now, and that’s what we have to do.”

“They don’t want to hear talk of a cap anymore,” he said. “The cap (proposal) has been out three of four years. It passed in our house. Now they want results.”

But the political push comes after schools have faced little or no growth in state aid and under pressure from taxpayers have made some of their lowest increases in property taxes in years. The New York State United Teachers union and the state School Boards Association have warned that further cuts will force teacher layoffs, higher class sizes and reduced programs.

Skelos said schools and local governments need relief from costly state mandates on construction and in programs to make a tax cap work. But many of those Albany-issued requirements are benefits and protections to the same unions that have derailed past governors’ efforts to reduce public spending.