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'New perspective' is urged by Cuomo for daunting tasks ; Governor cites need for dramatic change

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in his first State of the State address, Wednesday called for a "redesign" of the finances, structure and ethical underpinnings of state government -- an ambitious agenda for a Capitol unaccustomed to change.

But Cuomo said the stalled ways of Albany are hampering the state's ability to grow and are affecting everything from how businesses view New York to the ability of upstate to retain its population.

"We need a new perspective, and we need it now," the new governor said in a 47-minute address to about 2,000 state lawmakers, lobbyists, union and business leaders, political allies and members of the public.

With the state looking at a $10 billion deficit in 2011 and an additional $31 billion in red ink for the following two years, Cuomo pushed for a retrenchment in what state government can offer in the way of benefits and programs.

"This is not a one-year problem, my friends. This is a fundamental realignment for the State of New York," he said.

As most new governors have seen, Cuomo saw little resistance -- at least publicly -- from the State Legislature, which must approve such plans as a 20 percent reduction in the number of various state agencies and commissions and his calls for a state spending cap and ceiling on local property tax growth.

But whether the good will lasts after Feb. 1 -- when Cuomo unveils his tough-love budget plan for the state -- is an open question.

Wednesday, though, the buzzword was "cooperation."

"We can work together. We will work together," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, said during his 10-minute remarks to the joint gathering of the Assembly and the Senate.

Besides a venue change away from the Capitol to a state convention center, Cuomo also broke with tradition by allowing Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, to address the gathering. For Cuomo, that put their vows of cooperation on public display.

Silver went out of his way to cozy up to Cuomo on a key issue: a property tax cap, which has been blocked by Silver and his Democrats for several years. Cuomo has invested much political capital in a property tax cap, and he has said that it will not include Albany-style escape mechanisms; his plan caps annual growth at 2 percent, or 120 percent the inflation rate, whichever is lower. "New York has no future as the tax capital of the nation," he said.

Just what specific form that property tax relief might take is unclear; the sides have not yet begun real talks over such legislation.

Skelos embraced Cuomo's business-friendly plans for tax relief, controls on spending and a ban on borrowing to close the gap. "Our state cannot continue to be an obstacle to job creation. We must be a partner to prosperity," he said.

Cuomo established a working group to report back March 1 with plans to redesign the state's Medicaid system. He also created a panel to offer plans -- which would become law unless unless the Legislature specifically rejects them -- to consolidate the array of overlapping state agencies, commissions and offices.

The new governor also is seeking a fundamental shift in how some state funding is doled out. Competition -- instead of uncertain, often bureaucratic or political-driven systems -- should be incorporated into everything from economic development to education aid, he said.

Cuomo called for creation of local economic-development councils to devise regional job-creating programs instead of the top-down approach run by the state's economic-development bureaucracies in Albany and Manhattan.

"Let's empower the local community to plan their future and help themselves," he said.

He called for a $200 million pot of money for jobs to be distributed through a competitive process. Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said, "I'm excited about that because I think Buffalo and Western New York are well-positioned to do very well in that kind of competitive process."

The governor said his budget plan also will create two new accounts -- worth a total of $500 million -- that school districts will compete for based on criteria such as improving student performance and cutting costs. He said the program is geared to "incentivize performance."

But school funding advocates expressed concern about how the awards would be made. Moreover, according to Billy Easton of the union-supported Alliance for Quality Education, there is concern that Cuomo might be "giving with one hand while taking with the other" by creating the $500 million funding pots while cutting overall education aid.

A separate commission is being created to recommend ways to reduce the number of unfunded mandates that Albany places on localities -- a major driver of property taxes. The panel is being headed by Larry Schwartz, who was chief of staff under Gov. David A. Paterson and a political adviser to Cuomo's father, three-term Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

The governor used the captive audience of state lawmakers to press his idea for more disclosure of outside income by legislators, an independent redistricting commission to redo legislative and congressional lines over the next year, and public financing of campaigns.

He also called for a return to New York's being "the progressive capital" in the nation, including gay marriage rights and the shuttering of some juvenile-justice facilities criticized for treatment of children inmates. "An incarceration program is not an employment program," he said.

The state also should double, to 20 percent, the level of state business awards to companies owned by women and minorities, he said.

While some rank-and-file lawmakers, particularly in the more left-leaning Democratic Conference of the Assembly, want to reduce the fiscal pain through temporary borrowing or tax increases, legislative leaders -- at least for the time being -- say they side with Cuomo's retrenchment push.

"The taxpayers don't want more spending or more government. They want more jobs," Skelos said.

Some lawmakers new to Albany also were taking a wait-and-see attitude. Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said that he supports much of Cuomo's agenda in the speech and that he was surprised to hear so much support expressed by legislative leaders. "I just hope it wasn't all lip service and that we're going to work together," he said.

"I feel optimistic about the cooperative tone," said Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy, a South Buffalo Democrat who gave the Senate Democratic response to Cuomo's address.

Business groups, including the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Unshackle Upstate, lauded the conservative-leaning tax and spending plans outlined by Cuomo.

Asked whether Cuomo's agenda is too ambitious for one legislative session, Silver said, "I think he's going to be governor for a long time. I think what he did was probably set out a broad agenda. If you don't set goals, if you don't set long-term goals, you never are going to reach those targets."

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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