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Cuomo sets State of the State agenda

ALBANY – A massive effort to build infrastructure, new ethics-related measures for a corruption-plagued State Capitol, a new focus on homelessness and another try at hiking the minimum wage will be among the highlights of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s State of the State and budget address Wednesday.

Among his proposals, sources told The Buffalo News on Tuesday evening, will be transferring the state Canal Corp. – the unwanted stepchild of state government that runs the Erie Canal and other man-made waterways upstate – from control of the Thruway Authority to the New York Power Authority. The idea would be to separate the expensive canal network from a Thruway system experiencing its own financial challenges.

Lawmakers and advocacy groups Tuesday made last-minute public efforts to try to steer Cuomo their way, but the speech, and the usual accompanying slideshow, were already completed, and the voluminous state budget documents already had gone to print.

In the Capitol halls, there were protesters carrying green balloons and chanting for more money for public schools, while Republicans in the Senate were urging enactment of a statutory requirement to keep the increase in state spending at or below 2 percent annually.

After a week of leaking or publicly rolling out portions of his budget that he wanted to publicize on a daily basis, Cuomo remained largely in his Capitol office Tuesday going over final details of his sixth State of the State address to lawmakers and guests invited for the Wednesday afternoon speech at a state convention center near the Capitol.

On the Canal Corp. transfer, two sources told The News that the proposal is not finalized, that neither authority board has taken any action on it, and that legislative approval is likely required. But the idea is now expected to be introduced at a time when Cuomo is proposing other significant changes for the Thruway’s administration.

The Cuomo administration declined to comment Tuesday evening.

The plan would still not move the state’s canal system back onto the government’s overall general fund, which did pay for its operations until then-Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the current governor’s father, shifted the costs onto the Thruway as a budget-balancing maneuver in July 1992.

For years, critics have called the canal funding method a fiscal gimmick that forces motorists along the state’s biggest highway system to see part of their tolls go to fund the operations of the money-losing, 500-mile waterway network across upstate, including the Erie Canal. The Thruway’s current budget calls for about $53 million in operating costs for the canal system, along with $210 million in capital construction costs between 2016 and 2020.

The proposed shift to the Power Authority comes as Cuomo last week proposed that New York provide $1 billion to the Thruway Authority to freeze tolls through at least 2020.

Wednesday’s speech is expected to provide further evidence of Cuomo’s continuing turn to the political left, as he has sought to mend relations with groups that perhaps felt alienated during his first term.

Cuomo is pushing for a new program to expand college course offerings to prison inmates and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour over the business community’s howls. In addition, the governor is preparing to propose one of the biggest capital spending programs in state history to build or renovate major facilities in Manhattan, rail lines on Long Island and upstate roads and bridges, all to be funded, in part, by a future generation of taxpayers.

A number of the infrastructure programs that Cuomo will propose will either come through other sources of money – whether federal, local or other pots such as a still-hefty fund from legal settlements with financial institutions – or rely on big new borrowings.

Cuomo already signaled over the weekend his desire to continue closing state prisons. He said he will go down in history as the New York governor who shuttered the most correctional facilities.

Still, his budget plan will seek to enact several tough-on-crime initiatives. For instance, he will propose stricter penalties for child abusers. The administration said Tuesday that 8,500 children in New York are alleged to have been abused each year by their parents or caregivers.

Under current law, endangering the welfare of a child is a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum sentence of a year in county jail. Cuomo will propose making such crimes a Class D felony, increasing sentences up to seven years in state prison, the administration told The News on Tuesday.

“These are heinous crimes that demand a serious response,” Cuomo said. “This new law will strengthen our ability to keep abusers off the street and away from our children.”

Unknown in advance of Cuomo’s speech is precisely how he will fund public schools, always the true major fight – despite all the shouting on other issues – each year in Albany.

Republicans want Cuomo to eliminate a program that now disproportionately takes away money from their more suburban districts, while Democrats want him to target money to high-needs, more urban-based districts and schools that are considered failing their students.

Cuomo will have an overall school aid number in his budget plan, but it remained uncertain Tuesday whether he will propose district-by-district funding amounts.

Each year, governors release with their budget plans a long document called “school runs,” which show the various sources of money going to each of the state’s 700 school districts. The numbers are used by local officials as a likely funding floor because, by tradition, the Legislature typically adds on to a governor’s school funding level.

Last year, however, Cuomo broke that tradition by declining to release his own school numbers. His administration over the last week has been unable or unwilling to say whether those specific aid numbers will be released Wednesday.

The spending plan will include an array of items funded off-budget, including huge parts of a downstate transit and upstate roads and bridges capital program that will total more than $40 billion, much of it paid for by federal dollars.

Cuomo’s effort two years ago to expand college course offerings for prison inmates will be proposed again, but with $7.5 billion from a fund controlled by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

A day after U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said his Manhattan-based office had found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the Cuomo administration’s handling and 2014 closure of an anti-corruption commission, ethics was again the rage at the Capitol on Wednesday.

In the Assembly, Republicans again sought to push through a package of measures, including eight-year term limits for legislative leaders and committee chairmen, banning use of campaign funds for criminal-defense fees and eliminating the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics with an independent panel not controlled by the Governor’s Office. All the measures failed last year.

“I think ethics is the gorilla in the room, and it would be insane if (Cuomo) didn’t address that in an aggressive way because it’s obvious after going through the Shelly Silver and Dean Skelos trials that there are real problems with the way things function here and that affects all issues that we take up,” said Assemblywoman Jane L. Corwin, R-Clarence, referring to the recent federal corruption convictions of Silver, D-Manhattan, the former Assembly speaker, and Skelos, R-Rockville Centre, the former Senate majority leader.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com and rmccarthy@buffnews.com