ALBANY – Today is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s day as he gives his annual State of the State address.
“We will have a robust State of the State,” Cuomo said Tuesday.
But when it comes to fiscal and policy priorities, members of the Legislature are busy planning their own demands for the coming session, and they diverge from Cuomo on a number of fronts that could present challenges for the governor and lawmakers as they all face voters this fall for re-election.
The political needs are many in as diverse a state as New York. Lawmakers are already listing as their priorities as everything from more money for education to expanding abortion rights to raising taxes on wealthy people.
A group of four Senate Democrats wants parents to be able to lock in future college costs for their children while other lawmakers want Cuomo to either accept or reject hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Southern Tier, an issue that has been awaiting an answer for longer than he has been governor.
Once again, the rhetoric by all sides in early January is about détente, but that can be fleeting when spring brings the business of putting together a state budget, followed by the usual final flurry of bill passing.
“There are always challenges, but I think we’ve proven in the last three years we can work our way through these challenges,” Senate co-leader Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said Tuesday.
There are thousands of bills introduced last year that are still “live” this year, and an additional 114 have been introduced since New Year’s Day. Most are local or of the headline-chasing variety.
There is a new bill to strengthen penalties for gang crimes committed with vehicles, one to crack down on motorcyclists who pop wheelies and a number to rename highways. One new bill seeks to establish March 13 as K9 Veterans Day and another would name the wood frog as the state’s official amphibian.
But those are not the matters that will keep Cuomo and legislative leaders huddled behind closed doors in the months ahead. While Skelos was making legislative happy talk Tuesday, he made clear that his house was not going to go along with a full 10-point women’s rights agenda that Cuomo and Assembly Democrats want if it includes a provision to expand abortion rights.
“We’re not going to be supportive of expanding late-term abortions to the day of birth and non-doctors being able to perform abortions,” Skelos said.
But Skelos was not as adamant as he was last year about rejecting the so-called Dream Act bill, which calls for giving state financial aid to children of undocumented immigrants for college costs. “I haven’t even thought about it,” he said in an interview with reporters.
The earliest public battle forming is whether the new mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, gets his plan to raise taxes on wealthy people to help fund a prekindergarten program for public schools. While Skelos said he supports Cuomo’s view that such an increase would send a bad signal to a state trying to attract businesses, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, had a simple response Tuesday when asked about the idea: “I support the mayor, and I believe my conference supports the mayor.”
Other challenging issues ahead involve what, if anything, to do about the state’s Common Core curriculum for public schools, a program that has outraged many parents and teachers alike.
Silver said Tuesday that “the case has been made” to delay and re-evaluate the Common Core, which he said was pushed through too quickly upon teachers and districts without the necessary public support or training for teachers. Silver said that he is willing to let the Board of Regents act to correct the Common Core problems but that if they don’t do so in the coming couple of months, “we’ll consider it from there.”
Skelos and Cuomo were already lining up together over the governor’s new proposal to modestly cut property taxes for all New Yorkers. “I think it’s a good package,” Skelos said of the plan Cuomo unveiled Monday. Silver, though, and his Democratic colleagues are more comfortable with a plan to offer the breaks to lower- and moderate-income families.
Besides abortion and the Dream Act, other issues expected to be controversial range from a big borrowing to pay for environmental and infrastructure programs to whether the state should legalize Internet gambling.
It remains uncertain how hard, after Senate Republicans rejected him last year, that Cuomo will fight for a taxpayer-financed campaign system for candidates in New York, or if he will go along with Assembly Democrats who want annual hikes in the minimum wage by linking the wage level to the inflation rate.
Also expected to divide Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature is a push to raise the age of adult criminal responsibility; New York is one of two states mandating that 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a crime be tried in adult courts.
Assembly Democrats say they also want more state aid to schools than what Cuomo will propose, plus more money for after-school programs and a package of recommendations to increase availability of child care, especially for lower-income working families.
Besides a tax-cut package, Senate Republicans say they will make a new push for regulatory relief that businesses say make New York an unfriendly place, an on-time budget, a permanent spending cap that appears dead on arrival and new workforce-training programs.
A key role will be played by the four Democrats who broke from their conference to form the coalition that controls the Senate. Their agenda includes increasing maternity and family leave benefits with up to six weeks of mandatory insurance by employers, more money for affordable housing and day care subsidies, giving $300 to senior citizens to help pay utility bills, providing tax credits to college graduates to remain in New York and purchase a home, and permitting parents to lock in current college tuition levels for their child’s future education.
“It’s really about making New York affordable,” said Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein, D-Bronx, who heads the Independent Democratic Conference. He indicated that the four Senate Democrats in the conference will push harder than they did last year in their fledgling relationship with Senate Republicans to get their agenda realized this year. Oh his group’s priorities, Klein said, “This is important for the Independent Democratic Conference, and we’re going to stick to it.”