ALBANY – Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday outlined a vision for New York State in 2020 that does everything from legalizing marijuana to borrowing billions of dollars to improve and clean up a host of environmental matters.
The governor called that a “robust agenda,” one that was cheered by his supporters. His opponents called it something else: more of the same and none of it good.
The broad outline of his annual State of the State address was already known because Cuomo employed his annual public relations effort of trickling out details weeks ago. The process concluded Wednesday with a 75-minute speech in which the governor, like many New York governors before him, sprinkled his address with national political themes while offering up a slew of pothole-political messages.
With a bow to the state’s financial problems – at least a $6 billion projected operating deficit – Cuomo went heavy on low-cost or no-cost measures, such as new gun control ideas, restrictions on flavored nicotine vaping products, allowing alcohol sales in movie theaters and banning “ghost” guns that can’t be traced.
Cuomo has proposed some big spending ideas, such as $300 million for improvements along the Erie Canal corridor. But that plan would spread out the spending over five years and be paid for not by the state’s red-ink general fund, but the off-budget State Power Authority.
Not directly answered in the State of the State: How will New York close a $6.2 billion operating deficit, fueled largely by rising Medicaid costs, or how much might be available – and how will it be distributed – to the state’s 700 public school districts? Those answers will come, at least as Cuomo thinks they should be addressed, when he unveils his budget proposal later this month.
For now, the annual speech by the governor – before both houses of the Legislature and various state and local officials, as well as a who’s who of political guests and Albany insiders – is about setting a tone and to provide an overview of the executive branch’s priorities for the new session that began at the Capitol Wednesday.
One such tone was not a pleasant one to county leaders. Near the end of his speech, Cuomo appeared sharply critical of a program in which the state has been picking up cost increases incurred by counties for their share of the Medicaid health insurance program. He called those cost increases "unsustainable,'' but did not say what he might have in mind as a solution. A change in the cost-sharing agreement could present significant financial issues for counties, who then could pass along any additional costs to property taxpayers.
Also of financial note from the speech is a plan to borrow $3 billion for the “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act." It would have to be approved by voters before any money is spent, but Cuomo says the money is needed for everything from wildlife habitation rebuilding to flood mitigation efforts to improving fish hatcheries.
"It is our responsibility to leave our planet cleaner and greener and more sustainable for future generations,'' Cuomo said of the borrowing plan.
Environmental groups praised the bond act plan, but said they wanted to wait to see what Cuomo specifically proposes to fund. “We’re overdue,’’ Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates, said of the 23 years since New York last approved a borrowing for environmental spending.
Cuomo said he will propose a targeted tax cut for small businesses. He did not provide a price tag, but said 36,000 taxpayers would be affected by lowering the corporate franchise tax from 6.5% to 4% for businesses that employ fewer than 100 people and have less than $390,000 in income.
While his plan also aims to cut some costs for certain small businesses, Cuomo also wants employers to guarantee sick time for workers. His plan would require companies that employ between five and 99 workers to give five days of paid sick leave annually. Companies over that level would have to give seven days. Firms with fewer than five workers would need to give five days off per year, but it could be unpaid.
One group representing small businesses was left to praise the tax cut but raise concerns about the sick leave mandate. Unions in the state praised Cuomo's speech for vowing new workplace protections for employees in the gig economy.
The governor sought to present an image of a state that, under his leadership, has made bold advances. He liberally used the word “progressive” to describe the state government, talked of big building projects funded by state taxpayers, and sought to characterize New York’s state government as a can-do body compared with a dysfunctional Washington.
“I think it was a good Democratic, progressive message," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said of the speech by the 62-year-old Democratic governor.
But critics said it was a classic Cuomo speech of deflecting Albany’s many problems and presenting a rosy image of a state that, under his administration, has seen a continuing out-migration of residents, especially from upstate.
“He doesn’t sound like he wants to be the statewide governor. He sounds like he wants to be the progressive governor," said Gerard Kassar, the state Conservative Party chairman.
Kassar said Cuomo ignored a host of key economic and criminal justice issues, and questioned why he would propose such a big borrowing scheme at a time of a deficit that even the Democratic governor characterized as a “significant” challenge for the upcoming budget talks.
The governor will try again – after a deal collapsed in the state Senate last year – to legalize marijuana in New York. He is calling for a highly regulated and taxed industry, though he does not say how the estimated $300 million in projected tax revenues might be spent. Lawmakers last year insisted that low-income neighborhoods, populated heavily by people of color, be in line for much of that money because they were especially targeted in the state’s war on drugs over the decades.
With financial problems hitting the state for the first major time since 2011, some ideas Cuomo promotes come on the cheap. He wants, for instance, to create a “blue ribbon commission” to look at ways to expand the electric vehicle industry in New York and create a weekend residency program at a public college to focus on women’s corporate leadership issues.
The governor also wants to expand the category of immigrants who are eligible to receive state occupational licenses, from security guards to real estate brokers. He will again propose new limousine safety rules.
The last item in the written State of the State booklet – titled: “Making Progress Happen” – is a plan he is calling the “Nothing to Hide Act.’’ It would require statewide elected officials, state agency commissioners and state lawmakers earning over $100,000 to publicly release their state tax returns.
In giving the broad outline of a domestic terrorism state criminal statute, Cuomo talked of the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the state, including the machete attack during Hanukkah in Rockland County. The rabbi whose home was the scene of that attack on five people gave the opening prayer to Cuomo’s speech.