Cuomo sticks it to counties again

Gov. Andrew Cuomo was wrong Friday to veto a bill to have the state take over, from counties, the cost of providing defense lawyers for low-income people charged with crimes.

Yet on the same day, the Albany Times Union reported that Gov. Cuomo’s Executive Chamber had signed a contract to pay a top Manhattan law firm $950,000 to help defend the governor’s office in a federal investigation into allegedly corrupt behavior by Cuomo associates in the Buffalo Billion and SUNY Polytechnic Institute development projects.

So Gov. Cuomo, a wealthy man, makes the state pay luxury-grade white-collar lawyers to defend his office but won’t help the unemployed woman who is No. 157 on her county public defender’s caseload?

We see this veto as part of a bigger trend in which this governor scorns his state’s local governments. He blames them for high property taxes and pushes through punitive measures like the tax cap — which, granted, has done quite a lot of good — but refuses to acknowledge another big part of the problem: The state dumps too many mandated expenses onto counties. Not only does this practice drive up property taxes; it also leads to poor services in the poor counties that need them most. Both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-majority Assembly had agreed to rectify this, but the governor shot it down.

All criminal defendants have the right to “assistance of counsel,” according to the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It’s one of the Miranda rights police remind arrestees of as they take them into custody. But how it’s applied varies. It once just applied to federal cases, but in the 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court ruled that it applies to state and local cases as well.

Two years later, in 1965, the state of New York dumped the cost of public defense on counties.

It’s similar to the way the state dumped roughly half of its Medicaid obligation onto counties. In both cases, poorer counties — Franklin, for example — have more need per capita for the services and less tax base with which to pay for them. It’s one of the main reasons New York has such high property taxes.

These counties’ residents put pressure on their county politicians to rein in taxes they can’t afford. Gov. Cuomo’s property tax cap enhanced that pressure, and county board members cut wherever they can.

Some have cut too deeply into public defense. The New York State Civil Liberties Union sued the state, saying Ontario, Onondaga, Schuyler, Suffolk and Washington counties providing inadequate defense because the state had set them up to fail. In the 2014 settlement of that case, Hurrell-Harring et al. v. State of New York, the state agreed to pay those counties more money for public defense.

So what about the other 57 counties? This bill was an attempt to fix the problem rather than just stick a Band-Aid on it — to have the state take over indigent defense costs, for an estimated $800 million a year, rather than just kick in $150 million a year toward it.

The governor didn’t like that.

“This bill is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to shift costs from the counties to state taxpayers under the guise of indigent defense,” he said in explanation. Of course it was a cost shift; that wasn’t in dispute. By using words like “backdoor” and “guise,” the governor made it sound like deception was involved, but it’s obvious that New York’s poorer counties can’t afford to provide this service fairly on their own.

Maybe Gov. Cuomo’s just using this as a budget negotiation tool, taking something away from the legislature so he can get something in return when he gives it back. If so, that’s sneakier than anything in the indigent defense bill.

Ultimately, this is about distributing public defense funds so the system works more justly.