Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer urged lawmakers to join him in bringing a higher ethical standard to state government as he unveiled an ambitious agenda to control overall spending while sharply increasing aid for schools and deeply cutting local property taxes.
"The eyes of New York are on us," the new governor said Wednesday in his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Assembly and Senate.
Spitzer also emphasized that he will make reforming political campaigning, lobbying and structure of state government his chief mission in the coming year. Changing how Albany operates, he said, will help the state, increase its ability to add jobs upstate, improve classroom performance and get more people covered by health insurance.
"New York is not in this position because of a lack of ideas. New York is in this position because of a lack of leadership," he told lawmakers. The governor, embracing his campaign priorities, said he would push in this legislative session to provide health coverage for 500,000 uninsured children, expand charter schools, move to a merit selection process for judicial appointments and tighten restrictions on political donations while setting the stage for public financing for candidates.
He called for a $2 billion borrowing, to be put before voters this fall, to fund stem cell research and other ventures that would lead to commercial applications; he did not specify whether it would include embryonic stem cell research.
Like most State of the State addresses, Spitzer's speech was short on details; they will come when he proposes his budget Jan. 31.
But he gave a glimpse into a number of policy areas -- from making cities more efficient in return for extra state aid to reducing 4,200 separate, local government taxing jurisdictions through consolidation.
The governor vowed his budget will not propose raising taxes, but said the state still can afford to pump significantly more money into schools, cities and health care by making "hard choices" to cut other spending.
"And it's because we will finally learn to say 'no' to budget requests we simply cannot afford. Until we feel the pain of the word 'no,' we will continue making the same choices that have prevented us from bringing New York back," Spitzer told lawmakers.
By day's end, Spitzer clearly was very much on a political honeymoon -- with many brides. Over 60 minutes, Spitzer ended up saying something soothing to liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, and everyone in between.
Among his biggest boosters after the speech: Assembly Republicans, long kept powerless by Democrats who lead the 150-member house. They cheered -- literally -- his proposals to control spending, open budget deliberations, make elections fairer and end gerrymandering of legislative districts that has reduced the ranks of Republicans in the Assembly.
"What's not to like?" asked Assemblyman James Hayes, R-Amherst, who watched as his fellow Republicans applauded Spitzer while Assembly Democrats nearby sat on their hands.
"I think it was plagiarism," Hayes joked of ideas he said Assembly Republicans have promoted for years.
Democrats, though, insisted they were thrilled by Spitzer's words -- and by having a Democratic governor for the first time in 12 years. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, the longtime chief nemesis of former Gov. George E. Pataki, found himself playing a new role Wednesday: cheerleader to a governor. "Eliot Spitzer is the real deal," Silver said.
For their part, Republicans who control the Senate jumped to their feet not once, but twice to applaud Spitzer's call for $6 billion in property tax relief over three years.
"He's saying all the right things," said Sen. Joseph L. Bruno, R-Brunswick, who was re-elected Senate majority leader Wednesday, two weeks after he revealed the FBI is looking into his outside business dealings.
Nearly every usual special interest group came out of the woodwork to praise the speech. Environmentalists, school officials, county leaders, charter school advocates, business groups, reformers, doctors, unions and police groups all rushed to praise the Spitzer agenda. What that support resembles when he introduces his first budget remains to be seen.
In his speech, Spitzer said he wants to increase the number of charter schools, which Senate Republicans favor. In return, he called for more money for districts like Buffalo to compensate for state aid lost when students transfer to charter schools -- an idea Assembly Democrats like.
Buffalo says its charter schools, which educate 6,100 youngsters, will cost the district $40 million this year.
Spitzer talked of longer school days and longer school years, as well as prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds.
He called for additional aid for distressed cities like Buffalo, plus new steps to clean up aging industrial sites and rewards for localities that change zoning laws to encourage affordable housing. He also repeated his pledge to locate an upstate economic development czar in Buffalo.
"It is an ambitious agenda, but an agenda I wholeheartedly embrace that will be good for New York State and cities like Buffalo," Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said after attending the speech.
Spitzer talked of major infrastructure improvements, including pushing through the Peace Bridge project and rebuilding ground zero in Manhattan. He urged reforming the state's hundreds of authorities, criticized as shadow government entities that he called "patronage dumping grounds." He urged legislators to back his effort to slash the rate of state budget growth, saying, "We must end the culture of spending money we do not have."
While the state expects to end this fiscal year with a surplus, Spitzer said he wants to cut many budget items to provide more money for such expenditures as public school funding.
"The debate will no longer be about money, but about performance," he said of education funding.
In return for the extra money, school districts "must show where that money is spent and whether it's getting results -- with consequences for failure and rewards for success," he added.
Spitzer repeated pledges to cut workers' compensation costs for businesses while raising benefits for injured workers for the first time since 1992. He also would change a law that boosts costs for local government construction projects.
Once again, he insisted that to cut health care costs, some hospitals and nursing homes will have to close, as proposed by a state panel.
But, the details will tell the final story. While he called for a $6 billion property tax cut, he insisted it be "focused" on middle-class homeowners "whose property taxes are rising too fast for their incomes to catch up."
George Pataki, Jan. 4, 1995 "(My agenda) seeks change that is immediate and real, sweeping and fundamental - the kind of change the people have demanded of us."
Mario Cuomo, Jan. 5, 1983 "All of us - business, labor and government - must recognize the crisis of Buffalo is the crisis of the entire state."
Hugh Carey, Jan. 8, 1975 "(We) have been living far beyond our means. There has been scarcely an activity, a category in public spending, in which we did not lead the nation."
Thomas Dewey, Jan. 6, 1943 "We need to humanize our taxes."
Franklin Roosevelt, Jan. 2, 1929 "Let us all at this session rid ourselves forever of that blighting dread of following in the rear guard of another's triumphal procession along the road."
Alfred E. Smith, Jan. 1, 1919 "It must be apparent to every thinking man that real estate today is carrying as heavy a (tax) burden as it can sustain."
Theodore Roosevelt, Jan. 2, 1899 "At present, our system of taxation is in utter confusion, full of injustices and queer anomalies."
Grover Cleveland, Jan. 2, 1883 "(Government) involves a jealous watch of the public funds, and a refusal to sanction their appropriation except for public needs."
DeWitt Clinton, Jan. 27, 1818 "Parsimony ought to be avoided as well as profusion, but all governments are too prone to give into wasteful extravagance."