ALBANY — With advance rollouts of his State of the State proposals ending, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday moves onto the actual speech phase — an address certain to be particularly scrutinized by the left and right in an election year for a governor who sees himself with national political ambitions.
The governor, in both broad and specific brushstrokes, will signal how the state can keep funding key programs in education and health care at a time when its deficit is project to be at least $4.4 billion. He is also expected to lay out changes in the state’s tax code that will help thousands of New Yorkers restricted by the new federal tax law in their ability to fully deduct their state and local tax payments.
While some takeaway is certain to focus on Cuomo’s bashing of Washington as more fodder for a possible 2020 White House run, Cuomo allies insist the tax issue, for one, is a hyper-provincial one.
“This is doing damage to New Yorkers and we have to deal with it. It’s very local and very personal for all elected officials in New York to undo the damage that was put on the shoulders of New Yorkers by this federal tax law,’’ said Sen. Jeff Klein, a Bronx Democrat and head of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference.
Republicans predicted Cuomo's 1 p.m. speech in Albany will show a governor not focused enough on New York’s most pressing issues. Assemblyman Ray Walter, an Amherst Republican, said many of Cuomo’s plans already rolled out the past couple weeks came from “left wing talking points’’ that Cuomo would have to emphasize if he runs for president in 2020.
“We’re going to see a preview of what his presidential campaign is going to look like,’’ Walter said.
Combating sexual harassment
On Tuesday, Cuomo's preview campaign — a series of peeks at portions of his State of the State — continued.
Cuomo tapped into plans already introduced in the Legislature to address sexual harassment cases in both the public and private sectors. His proposal would ban the use of public funds by any state or local government agency in sexual harassment settlement cases that include confidentiality agreements. Observers noted the proposal appears to leave open cases by state officials, such as former Cuomo economic development official Sam Hoyt, to settle such matters privately.
The confidentiality proposal would be voided if the victim prefers such a secrecy arrangement for a sexual harassment settlement. The governor’s plan also requires firms doing business with the state to disclose sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements that they’ve entered into.
Cuomo on Tuesday said his State of the State would include new state money to address a “skills gap” in many private sector companies that are finding it difficult to attract well-trained workers. The funds — for such things as improving short-term employment needs and creation of apprentice programs — would go through the administration’s Regional Economic Development Councils, which means the Legislature would be cut out of decisions over how dollars are specifically directed.
Cuomo said his budget this year will also include a plan to centralize workforce development programs into a single, new office.
On environmental issues, Cuomo Tuesday said he is proposing new emission standards for smaller power plants now not covered by a greenhouse gas reduction program and also new investments in energy storage efforts.
A year of challenges
For Cuomo, the bar is especially high for the 2018 State of the State.
The governor starts the new year looking to run for a third term in the fall. At the same time, he’s trying to keep his name included on the list of White House Democratic wannabees for 2020. Standing in the way is a Republican Party that claims Cuomo will not have a cakewalk in the November gubernatorial election, as well as the left wing of Cuomo’s party that is threatening a primary contest against him in September.
There’s more. The state is facing a $4.4 billion deficit that, depending on federal action, particularly in the way of Medicaid funding for the states, could grow sharply in the months ahead. Cuomo is also dealing with increasingly tax-weary New Yorkers, who endure high state and local taxes and now — thanks to the recent federal tax overhaul law — will see the ability to deduct those taxes sharply limited on their federal tax forms.
Cuomo also is looking ahead to a new war over partisan control of the 63-member Senate. Criticized by the left for not seriously helping Democrats take over the Senate over the past several years, Cuomo has now been publicly calling for the Democrats to reunite and put an end to warring factions that have kept the party from controlling both houses of the Legislature. It means booting out of power the very Republicans who have helped Cuomo get through a number of his major initiatives since taking office in 2011.
Finally, Cuomo will have to deal with the potential fallout from the corruption trials of some former top-ranking associates, including a close friend. The trials also will bring to light what federal prosecutors say were bid-rigging involving some of Cuomo’s signature upstate economic development programs, including the Buffalo Billion solar project at RiverBend. The first of those trials starts in three weeks and the defendants include Cuomo’s former fix-it aide, Joseph Percoco. That will be followed by the early summer trial of defendants involved in economic projects in Buffalo and Syracuse. Whether Cuomo himself will testify in either trial remains uncertain. Cuomo has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Cuomo will face the age-old debate in Albany during rough fiscal times: whether state taxes get boosted to accommodate popular spending programs. The head of the Senate Tuesday said no to such a route. “New Yorkers pay too much in taxes already and raising taxes cannot — and should not — be the answer,’’ said Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.
Andrew Pallotta, president of the politically powerful New York State United Teachers union, took note of the state’s deficit, the potential impact of the federal tax law and possibility for more federal funding cuts. “I think it’s a challenging year for everyone,’’ the union leader said.
Still, Pallotta said, a rise in state aid to public schools will be a priority for the union. “We would love to see a substantial increase in school aid,’’ Pallotta said, noting the $1.6 billion education hike asked for recently by the state Board of Regents.
Blame and opportunities
Cuomo officials say the national ambition chatter around Cuomo’s State of the State has been an annual event in recent years as a result of major policy initiatives he unveils in the speeches. The administration Tuesday afternoon could not immediately say whether any national media outlets — other than those that normally cover Cuomo — have asked for credentials to cover the governor's speech in person.
Regardless, there will almost certainly be much spin by some Cuomo allies that the Tuesday speech, his eighth State of the State, is among the most important of the governor’s political career.
Cuomo can be expected to continue his months’ long criticism of Republicans in Washington, including President Trump, for federal spending cuts that are hitting states like New York, and for the recently enacted tax overhaul law that Cuomo says targets high-tax states like New York by limiting deductions on state and local taxes.
How far he goes in blaming Washington for the state’s own fiscal woes — the state is facing a rising deficit that is shaping up to be Cuomo’s worst in office — will be known soon after he starts his speech.
The opportunity for Cuomo, Klein said, “is to lay out an agenda … that New York is going to protect New Yorkers despite federal (tax) policies that came down from Washington.’’
Walter, the Western New York assemblyman, said Cuomo could seize the opportunity to rewrite the state’s tax code in a way that moves New York’s reputation as one of the nation’s highest tax states. He noted recent census figures that showed 1 million people have fled New York to other states since 2010.
“He’s talking about overhauling the tax code. As long as the result of that is we are decreasing the burden of our over-burdened taxpayers I’m all for it. But I can’t imagine that’s what going to come of it,’’ the lawmaker said.