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Upstate ride-hailing, early voting among Cuomo priorities

ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Sunday continued a selective rollout of his priorities for 2017 in the lead up to this week’s State of the State road show that will include a Monday afternoon stop in Buffalo.

After last week offering up a controversial free tuition plan for some public college students and new measures against cyberattacks, Cuomo on Sunday floated proposals addressing everything from employee wage theft to new protections for senior citizens against abuse in the growing reverse-mortgage industry.

He also called for election law changes, including allowing early voting up to 12 days before Election Day and allowing people to register to vote as late as Election Day. Both ideas have been kicking around Albany for years, but have died in the State Senate. Cuomo said his plan would “modernize and open up our election system.’’

As expected, given his support for the industry during failed negotiations last year, Cuomo will again this week support bringing ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, to upstate.

The State of the State offers an opportunity for governors to touch on a hodge-podge of ideas their administrations will push each year. Some ideas die, never to be heard of again, while others become priorities in upcoming budget talks in the spring. Sometimes, governors borrow ideas from others, whether statewide officials, lawmakers or other states; and sometimes they recycle their own ideas from previous sessions.

The annual January ritual – no matter the governor or political party affiliation – seeks to touch as many interests as possible, from farmers to property taxpayers to business owners. Cuomo, in his week of rolling out selected pieces of his State of the State, has not strayed from the usual broad-brush themes of many governors.

On Sunday, he floated plans “protecting seniors from financial exploitation,” including making it easier to place holds on potentially fraudulent transactions against senior citizens and other consumers. He will also propose new consumer protections involving reverse mortgages, a product that has appealed to many elderly people who have long ago paid off their home mortgages.

Cuomo on Sunday said he will also propose:

* Giving new powers to his the Department of Financial Services to be able to ban “bad actors” from the financial industry if they have committed acts “so severe as to have a direct bearing on their fitness or ability to continue participating in the industry." No further details were released;

* Cracking down on some employers who do not pay employees the full amount of the salaries they are owed, such as by not paying the minimum wage or withholding payments owed during a company's bankruptcy proceeding. Cuomo’s plan seeks to hold senior members of an out-of-state limited liability corporation personally liable for unpaid wages due employees, similar to what currently can happen to senior members of in-state LLCs;

* Expanding the number of electric vehicle charging stations, including 69 along the 570-mile state Thruway system.

The ride-hailing issue will be a part of Cuomo’s speech in Buffalo. A host of bills have already been proposed on the matter. Cuomo’s plan touches on one of the controversies: providing workers compensation protections for ride-hailing drivers. His plan would not require Uber and others to pay for those costs, but would charge consumers a 2.5 percent surcharge on each ride.

Left uncertain is where Cuomo stands on the major fights between ride-hailing companies and their opponents, including whether Uber and Lyft drivers will be subject to fingerprint background checks, as they are in New York City and as many taxi drivers are across the state. Also left out of the governor’s plan, at least in what was released Sunday, was whether localities will get home rule protections to regulate ride-hailing companies and whether auto insurance liability coverage will be the same for the ride-hailing industry as for taxi companies.

Governors have given speeches to joint sessions of the Legislature ever since New York has been a state, though the tradition has been a steady one for the past 100 years. This year, though, with Cuomo’s relations at an especially low point with lawmakers in both parties, the governor is hitting the road, giving six speeches over the next three days instead of convening the two houses of the Legislature for one State of the State in Albany.

He starts the process with an 11 a.m. speech in Manhattan on Monday, followed by a 3 p.m. event at the University at Buffalo.

A number of lawmakers, including the leaders of the Assembly and Senate, said they don’t plan to attend Cuomo’s speeches this week. Other legislators, in a display of how sour the relations are between Cuomo and the Legislature, had already said they would have boycotted the State of the State if he had appeared before the two houses.

In Buffalo, Cuomo is also be expected to outline his plans for a second phase of the Buffalo Billion program. Cuomo went to Buffalo last year to vow an expansion of that program, which is among one of several upstate economic development programs that is embroiled in U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s pay-to-play investigation, a probe that has led to eight arrests, including people close to Cuomo. The company president and two other top executives at Buffalo’s LPCiminelli, the general contractor on the SolarCity project, are among those indicted in what prosecutors say was a scheme of bribery and other alleged crimes involving the steering of lucrative state contracts.

If the State of the State is for flourishes, it is the state budget documents that put the details to the rhetoric of the annual speeches. Cuomo, under the requirements of the State Constitution, has until Jan. 17 to release his 2017-18 budget plan. His office has not yet said when the budget is coming out.

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