How Will New York's Cuomo Cut $10 Billion?

When Andrew Cuomo was sworn in as New York governor this month, he signed up to deal with a record-breaking budget problem.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Across the country, governors and state legislators are haggling over budget proposals for the next fiscal year. One thing their plans have in common: drastic cuts aimed at mending huge budget gaps. As we've reported, the economic downturn has left many state governments with severe deficits. It all makes for a high stakes political drama.

We have a series of reports now on how three states are dealing with this budget crisis, starting with NPR's Robert Smith in New York.

ROBERT SMITH: To be the governor of a big state these days, you have to be something of an escape artist.

Unidentified Man: Watch it, watch it, ladies and gentlemen. This is without a doubt the most dangerous stunt to ever be performed before the public.

SMITH: The magic is to cut billions of dollars and stay popular.

Unidentified Man: And now, Houdini, are you ready to defy death?

Mr. HARRY HOUDINI: I'm ready.

SMITH: In New York State, a long line of governors have used the financial equivalent of smoke and mirrors. They've raised fees, borrowed money, and deployed gimmicks to balance the state budget. But the new governor, Andrew Cuomo, has promised, no more tricks.

Governor ANDREW CUOMO (Democrat, New York): We spend too much money in this state. It is just an unsustainable rate of spending.

SMITH: So how will he's going to cut what the state needs: $10 billion? So far, the magician is not giving up his secrets.

Mr. CUOMO: We're going to reveal the budget when we reveal the budget and that's going to be next week.

SMITH: Cuomo spent his first month as governor avoiding talking about specific cuts. Instead, he's been traveling New York State trying to get an audience on his side, trying to convince people that business as usual is the most dangerous stunt.

Mr. STEVE GREENBERG (Pollster, Sienna College Research Institute): And the voters are very much liking what they're seeing from Andrew Cuomo in his first month in office.

SMITH: Steve Greenberg from the Sienna College Research Institute. He says Cuomo has a 70 percent favorability rating, but that won't last for long. In the 1953 movie of Houdini's life with Tony Curtis - Houdini realizes the audience doesn't love you unless you live up to the hype.

(Soundbite of movie, "Houdini")

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (as Houdini) Bess, people aren't going to stand in line to watch me pull rabbits out of a hat.

SMITH: For Houdini, the biggest danger was drowning in one of his water tricks. For Governor Cuomo:

Mr. GREENBERG: Well, what could go terribly wrong is that when he proposes a budget that has billions of dollars in cuts in education and health care, the public turns on him and says, no, we don't want that.

(Soundbite of movie, "Houdini")

Unidentified Man: (as character) Ladies and gentlemen Houdini is now prepared to enter the pagoda torture cell.

SMITH: Filled with $10 billion in debt, chained with bureaucracy and entitlements, we'll see if there's a death-defying escape.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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