ALBANY – It was only 12 months ago, in his annual State of the State address, that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared that “our ship of state is stronger than it has been in decades.”
A year later, under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed nearly 39,000 New Yorkers, shuttered businesses and left the finances of families as well as state and local governments in tatters, Cuomo gives his 11th State of the State on Monday. It will be followed by additional speeches on specific topic areas until Thursday.
Yet, Cuomo, like governors before him facing enormous challenges, can be expected to give an obvious bow to the troubles facing the state while providing a path, however murky it might seem, to better times.
Having to give an annual State of the State address in difficult and uncertain times is hardly unique to Cuomo in 2021.
Nine months after the start of the U.S. Civil War, Gov. Edwin D. Morgan provided his annual message to lawmakers on Jan. 7, 1862, at a time when 106,000 New Yorkers were already off to war against the Confederate Army.
“Without stopping to consider antecedent facts, we behold a rebellion of extraordinary proportions, menacing the safety of a government, whose common benefits have made us a free and prosperous people, and given us an honored name in every land and on every sea,’’ Morgan said 159 years ago.
But Morgan also delivered updates on the doings of state government, as governors are supposed to do in State of the State messages, such as debt levels of the state’s canal system and the success of a floating hospital for the treatment of people with yellow fever, according to archival records. He spoke of the war strengthening "the cord of brotherhood" that has provided Americans "a sad opportunity to vindicate themselves from the calumny of national selfishness."
In January 1931, just 14 months after the stock market crash and amid the Great Depression, Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his annual message to lawmakers, acknowledging the “suffering and hardship” New Yorkers faced.
“It is not calm waters but the stress of angry seas in time of storm that tests the soundness of the construction of any ship: the Ship of State is no exception," Roosevelt said.
But as Cuomo will do Monday, and as many other governors facing adversity before him employed, Roosevelt injected a dose of optimism – along with promises of government assistance – in his address. And he stressed the role of state government in providing relief.
“I conceive it to be not only the duty of a state to promote the prosperity of its citizens, but to aid them in every possible way during dark days when prosperity has been succeeded by adversity," Roosevelt said.
Four months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Gov. George Pataki stood before lawmakers to deliver his State of the State – with his own offerings of hope. “We will rebuild, we will succeed, we will meet tomorrow as we meet today, with the same confidence, the same optimism and the same belief in the unlimited potential of our future that we had on Sept. 10," Pataki said on Jan. 9, 2002, in the state Assembly chamber.
For Cuomo, the State of the State is not a speech to address controversies he has faced during Covid, such as his short-lived policy that required nursing homes to take in Covid-positive patients from hospitals or what critics say has been a bumpy start to the Covid vaccination program.
Rather, he will, if his own and that of previous governors is any guide, propose new and old ideas, take credit for various things, and talk about a cooperative spirit he can have this session with lawmakers.
Not all gloom and doom
Indeed, Cuomo has already signaled his speech won’t be all gloom and doom, and he will put a priority on rebuilding New York from Covid’s impact.
“We need to build for the future. We have to take this moment to actually anticipate a post-Covid world and build for the post-Covid world because the post-Covid world is going to be different and it’s going to be a different economy," he said last week.
Like Albany has been for two years, Washington is about to morph into an Democratic-led government. New York has major federal help on the way, Cuomo believes, thanks to two U.S. Senate victories in Georgia by Democrats, which gives the party control of the Senate just as the White House is about to be occupied by President-elect Joe Biden. The House has already been led by Democrats.
Cuomo talks of a $15 billion deficit, though budget analysts say the number for the current fiscal year ending March 31 is half that. But out-year deficits soar, and there are many questions just how much help Washington can truly provide Albany. Some have speculated of a $10 billion to $12 billion federal aid package for the state, which won’t be enough to address multiyear deficits.
What lawmakers want to hear
Cuomo's speech will be unique: It will be delivered virtually, without the usual crowd of lawmakers, lobbyists and political supporters, as a bow to social distancing protocols during the pandemic.
Cuomo's inbox is already full of plans that various groups say he should be embracing. Environmental groups, for instance, want Cuomo to back a $3 billion environmental bond act; that borrowing was scuttled last year by Covid financial worries before it had a chance to go to voters for approval.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester County Democrat, says her colleagues want Cuomo to embrace marijuana legalization, which Cuomo said Wednesday he will support again this year. She also wants legalization of mobile sports betting; Cuomo has signaled that his earlier opposition is ending. But the sides differ on some key aspects of both plans.
Cuomo has also told lawmakers that the Democratic takeover in Washington this month decreases the need for big tax hikes on New Yorkers. But Democrats in both houses say more revenues are needed than Washington might supply, and there are numerous proposals for how to hike income and other taxes on millionaires and billionaires.
“We hope to see a budget that creates real revenue and doesn’t simply rely on austerity or balancing the budget on the backs of working men and women. This includes millionaires and billionaires paying their fair share," Stewart-Cousins said in a statement.
For his part, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said “bedrock issues” involving education, health care, transportation, housing and employment will shape the session that begins in earnest after Cuomo’s State of the State. Like Cuomo, he said the U.S. Senate takeover is “tremendous news for the people of New York” and that he expects Congress to quickly move on a stimulus package “to address the many needs we have since our state was the epicenter of the initial Covid outbreak.”
Powerful interests check in
When asked what labor wants to hear from Cuomo, Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, said unions have made a priority protecting residents from the health and economic effects of Covid. Among the ideas: increasing unemployment benefits related to Covid impacts; timely payments for medical care; wage replacement and death benefits for workers who die from Covid and their families; and a New York Hero Act to set statewide minimum workplace standards for Covid safety protocols, such as testing and personal protective equipment and a method for workers to report violations to the state. To fund vital services, labor leaders also want to see various taxes hiked.
“This will take bold leadership," Cilento said.
Business groups want Cuomo and lawmakers to avoid tax hikes, and do everything from drive special assistance to small businesses to promoting new economic activities as a way to bolster state revenues instead of tax increases.
Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State, said companies still dealing with the pandemic’s impact can’t be then also burdened with new Albany-imposed costs or mandates on employers. What he called “unnecessary regulatory burdens on businesses” should be reduced, as well.
“This is the time to be innovative, not to double down on old, bad ideas," Pokalsky said.
From the left comes the Fiscal Policy Institute. Its chief economist, Jonas Shaende, said New Yorkers want Cuomo to take “a combination of bold, transformative vision and concrete common sense actions.” The needs, from schools to social services programs, have only deepened during the pandemic, the group says, and Washington will have to help resolve New York’s fiscal problems.
“Nonetheless, Governor Cuomo can lead by setting the goal posts for our state," Shaende said.
From the right comes the perspective of the state Conservative Party. In advance of Cuomo’s annual address, Gerard Kassar, its chairman, urged lawmakers to undo the special legal and budgetary powers they gave Cuomo during the pandemic. He also said Cuomo needs to lay out a vision for the economic future “that includes the timing of businesses returning to their normal operations.”
Now, Kassar said, is not the time for a state spending spree as some are advocating. “He needs to make it clear to special interests that Albany is not the place to go shopping for program dollars for the foreseeable future," Kassar said.
Cuomo, in another dampened economy and facing big Albany deficit, has been optimistic before.
“When you look at the assets of this state, when you look at the legacy of this state, when you look at the tenacity of our people and when you look at the quality of our people – you have the very real sense that we can turn this crisis into an opportunity," Cuomo said.
That was Jan. 5, 2011, Cuomo’s first State of the State address as governor.