Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo laid out a broad vision for New York Wednesday in his State of the State address, combining initiatives that appeal to conservatives and liberals and challenging the state to live up to the ideals of democracy. Cost details have yet to be made clear but the speech at least appealed to the better instincts of listeners. Too many politicians today aim only to stoke voters’ worst fears.
Many of the details in the speech had already been leaked to the media but some, such as his proposals for ethics reform and breast cancer screening, had not been previewed at all. In the end, he at least made a case for all of his proposals, including an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour – an increase that many have criticized and for which this page has expressed reservations.
Cuomo proposed to call an end to the pretense that we can have a “citizen legislature” whose members serve the state, then go back to full-time occupations that don’t conflict with their public duties. That may have been true when lawmakers were also farmers who needed to plant and reap their crops, but not when many members carry conflicts the way a tick carries disease.
Cuomo called for restrictions on outside income, for closing the “LLC loophole” on donations that is an open door to corruption, and for publicly financed elections. The first two should be done immediately, and the last is deserving of more consideration than it has been given.
The fact is that Albany is a sewer of corruption. Sadly, it was no surprise that the audience dominated by lawmakers greeted his ethics proposals with something approaching silence. That is why Cuomo must continue to push these reforms throughout the budget season, encouraging the constituents of legislators to demand action.
If the felony convictions of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos haven’t made clear to lawmakers the need for reform, then voters and prosecutors have more work to do.
Cuomo proposed $100 billion in “transformative” projects, some aimed at downstate – rebuilding LaGuardia Airport and Manhattan’s Penn Station, for example – but also improving upstate roads, bridges and water systems. All are critical for the state’s long-term economic health.
Cuomo proposed $20 billion to continue to revive the upstate economy, which he acknowledged Albany had ignored for too long. Most creatively, he proposed using $1 billion of lawsuit settlement funds to keep Thruway tolls stable at least until 2020, to cut the toll expenses in half for frequent users and to eliminate them altogether for upstate’s critical agriculture industry. It’s a smart use of what amounts to one-shot funding.
In what is the most broadly controversial of his proposals, Cuomo continued to push for a $15 an hour minimum wage, a figure that has many business interests sensibly worried. Yet, the governor made some points for which skeptics will have to account.
The wage, he said, will be no more than what it would have been had the rate in the 1970s kept up with inflation. That is to say, if it wasn’t punitive then, why should it be now, especially if it is phased in, as he proposed, to ensure that the economy can sustain it?
He also pointedly observed that New Yorkers have subsidized the incomes of employees of such companies as McDonald’s and Burger King to the tune of $700 million a year through public support programs. He called that corporate welfare, and it’s not an unfair description. We continue to harbor concerns, but it’s fair to say that Cuomo raised counter-arguments that deserve to be taken seriously.
Cuomo wants to increase education funding by $2.1 billion and to repeal the gap elimination adjustment that helped the state hobble through the Great Recession. What remains unclear is what he would ask of schools in exchange, but there should be some requirement to improve efficiency and educational outcomes. Still, he was correct in observing that New York does better at building and equipping prisons than it does schools. It’s a disastrously backward construct.
There was much more, including passionate calls for providing an employee-funded family leave program and for improved early detection of breast cancer. Both were personal, based on his experience with the death last year of his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and the breast cancer and double mastectomy endured by his partner, Sandra Lee.
It was, as Cuomo acknowledged, ambitious. But that’s what New York should be, as long as it’s affordable, smart and consistent with democracy. At least the first of those seems clear: His proposed budget raises spending by just 1.7 percent.
It made for a good start to the year in Albany.