ALBANY – A month after the corruption convictions of their former leaders, lawmakers return to Albany on Wednesday for the start of a new legislative session with renewed urgency to please constituents who will decide this fall whether to re-elect them to the Senate and Assembly.
But before lawmakers cast their first votes, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday continued trickling out portions of his upcoming budget, including a big new spending initiative on environmental programs. He also dusted off a decades-old idea to build a tunnel under Long Island Sound.
The governor’s pre-State of the State rollout received mixed reviews, however.
Cuomo was in Nassau County in the morning, presenting a major infrastructure plan for Long Island.
He was in Rochester in the afternoon, proposing a $300 million tax break for more than 1 million businesses. That offer came with a caveat: Cuomo wants businesses to support his call to raise the state’s $9-per-hour minimum wage to $15.
Small and large businesses say such a large increase, even spread over five years, will kill jobs.
One business group called it a failed triangulation attempt by Cuomo more than a week before unveiling his 2016 budget.
“I think that when a business owner looks at their bottom line and does the math on what this tax cut means for them – and by the way that assumes they’ve survived another year in New York – and looks at over $15 billion that will come out of them from the minimum wage increase, they’re going to see a massive net negative,” said Michael Durant, New York State director of the National Federation of Independent Business.
Between the minimum wage plan and other ideas like a paid family leave program, “businesses are just going to shrug their shoulders and turn away. There’s not going to be rousing applause,” Durant said of the Cuomo business tax plan.
In Rochester on Tuesday afternoon, Cuomo did not mention his minimum wage plan that he touted as recently as Monday at a union hall in Manhattan.
Cuomo said his administration has put a renewed focus on upstate and has cut a variety of business and personal taxes since he took office in 2011.
Besides the tax cut for small businesses, Cuomo said his budget will include $50 million for four regional areas that recently lost out in a competition for a major infusion of state cash. Western New York was not eligible for the large or small pot of funds because it has gotten special funding through Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program.
Cuomo said his budget will include $7 billion in various upstate programs. He did not say how that money would be appropriated, or over how many years he’s including in that calculation.
“The energy is with us. We are changing upstate’s story. It’s going from a story of decline to opportunity and optimism,” Cuomo said.
When both houses are back in session Wednesday, it will mark the first full year of leadership for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat. They took over last year for former Senate leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, both convicted in December on federal corruption charges.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the spiritual leader of New York Catholics, will give the opening prayer to start the Senate’s 2016 session Wednesday afternoon.
Showing the urgency of an election year that threatens their future control of the Senate, Republicans from the Senate returned a day early Tuesday to meet in private to discuss policy and political matters.
Besides another increase in the minimum wage, which the Senate Republicans have so far blocked, the two houses face several months of spirited negotiations over how to carve up billions of dollars in infrastructure spending. Cuomo already has sided with a plan for more than $8 billion for downstate transit projects, not including some of the ideas he floated at a Long Island event Tuesday.
But uncertain is what he proposes for upstate roads and bridge repairs and improvements, or what advocates call a “parity” deal.
There are no deals in advance of the session’s start on restoring Albany’s tattered image after a decade or so of scandal after scandal in the state government. The sides have not been able to agree on whether to limit outside incomes of lawmakers or whether to narrow some loopholes that help campaigns raise cash from donors able to avoid certain contribution limits.
The sides also have not even been able to agree on something the federal government did nearly two generations ago: require campaign donors to list the names of their employer.
The annual battle over what school districts are winners, near-winners and losers in state aid allotments won’t be made clear until the end of March, at the earliest, though Cuomo is expected next week to propose a large increase in aid to education.
Still unknown is whether Cuomo will embrace the State University of New York system’s request to continue a 5-year-old program that allows public colleges to raise tuition on an annual basis without special approval by the governor and lawmakers.
In Rochester, Cuomo also called for creation of a $100 million fund to target improvement efforts in 10 downtown areas across the state. He did not propose the recipients, saying each of the state’s 10 regional councils would be responsible for identifying which community in their area would get the funding allotment.
Cuomo’s pre-budget rollout effort won cheers Tuesday from environmental groups after the governor announced $300 million for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. That is up from the $177 million in the current fiscal year that ends March 31. The money goes for everything from waterfront cleanup efforts to purchase of farmland for open space.
Environmental Advocates Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz said the $300 million commitment, which still needs legislative approval, would help the state’s economy.
“Growing economies make environmental protection and public health a priority,” he said.