ALBANY — With enormous health and financial crises facing the state, Gov. Cuomo dedicated his State of the State Address on Monday to beating COVID and rebuilding New York.
The dual crises have bedeviled the state for nearly a year, and Cuomo’s speech Monday traveled some familiar ground. New, however, was his sweeping plan for addressing the crises.
The price of the massive package — green energy, new manufacturing, social justice, affordable broadband for all, subsidized healthcare, assistance for immigrants — was unspecified but would doubtless run into the billions of dollars, and the state already is $15 billion short of its expenses without adding any new spending.
Cuomo’s only suggestions for raising this money were legalized recreational marijuana (which is expected to yield a few hundred million a year in tax revenue, eventually) and expanded sports betting (which is expected to yield several hundred a million a year, fairly soon).
The governor is banking on a massive infusion of federal cash for the rest.
“If Washington does tell New York to effectively drop dead once again, I will be shocked, but New York will fight back,” Cuomo said.
But there’s reason to be optimistic. The leaders of the House and Senate are Democrats who’ve supported aid to states and municipalities, and President-elect Biden is largely aligned with them.
The leader of the U.S. Senate is New York’s Charles Schumer; he and New York’s other senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, also a Democrat, plan a news conference Tuesday to outline their proposal for direct federal aid to state and local governments.
The governor spoke from the War Room in the state Capitol on Monday, delivering the annual address electronically with a handful of aides present rather than with an audience of thousands in a large venue.
New York is at war, Cuomo said, and when it wins the war against COVID, it will need to reconstruct.
To win the war and reconstruct successfully, he proposed:
- Beat back the virus as it rages the next few months.
- Vaccinate 70 to 90 percent of New Yorkers safely, fairly and quickly.
- Deal with the short-term economic crisis — a record $15 billion deficit in the state budget due April 1.
- Plan and begin the economic resurgence now; waiting for vaccination to progress before reopening is untenable because “We will have nothing left to reopen.”
- Make New York the global leader in green energy.
- Anticipate how COVID will transform society and the economy and capitalize on those changes.
- Address the inequity, racism and social abuse laid bare by the COVID crisis.
And he wants to do all seven of these things simultaneously.
“It will be hard,” Cuomo said. “It will be the greatest test for government since we mobilized to fight World War II. It will be the greatest opportunity for advancement since post-World War II.”
As with many politicians’ annual political addresses, there were more goals and vision than details on achieving them. But Cuomo had been detailing some of his proposals one by one before the address, and on Monday, he offered a quick summary of many of them:
- Incentivizing New York companies to manufacture medical supplies.
- Ensuring telemedicine services are available to all New Yorkers.
- Hiring 1,000 people and creating the New York State Public Health Corps, which will train and certify an army of 100,000 health emergency volunteers to be mobilized in event of crisis.
- Opening a network of COVID rapid test sites across the state.
- Starting the nation’s most aggressive construction and transportation development program to jump start the economy.
- Ensuring broadband internet service is available to all New Yorkers, regardless of location and income.
- Launching the most aggressive green economy program in the nation, with expanded manufacturing, research/development, worker retraining and construction.
- Prohibiting penalties and late fees on rent and mortgage payments not made during the COVID crisis.
- Eliminating healthcare premiums for 400,000 more low-income New Yorkers.
- Fully funding the Liberty Defense Project, which provides legal counsel to legal and illegal immigrants.
- Passing a law to mandate better performance by local boards of elections.
- Converting vacant commercial space to supportive and affordable housing.
Also Monday, Cuomo reiterated the need to reimagine law enforcement. Rather than imposing a one-size fits-all solution, though, he has required every entity that operates a police agency to come up with a plan to fit that community’s needs — subject to the approval of the Cuomo administration.
During his State of the State, he cited several municipalities as good examples of the progress being made, including the city of Schenectady — specifically, its plan to have a citizen advisory panel evaluate candidates before they are hired and appointed to the Police Department.
Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy and Police Chief Eric Clifford thanked the governor for the recognition.
The police-community dialogue began after the late-spring civil unrest sparked by the police killing of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter protests in Schenectady were tense and angry but not destructive, as people on both sides worked to avoid the violence that erupted in cities around the nation, including Albany.
Afterward there was a lot of conversation, Clifford told The Daily Gazette on Monday, and the City of Schenectady’s Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative formed.
“This is an example of real, substantive change that’s come about as a result,” he said.
Community activist Will Rivas came up with the idea, Clifford added, police leadership embraced it, and the community made it happen.
How soon the panel gets a chance to vet potential police recruits remains to be seen, as the department is shrinking, not growing.
The Police Department lost nine positions in the 2021 budget as the city struggled to meet its expenses. But the chief is expecting some retirements this year, and if federal aid comes through, he may be able to replace them.
“We’re hopeful President Biden’s administration will bring us some funding that will allow us to hire,” Clifford said.
New York government is controlled entirely by downstate Democrats, but for the first time during Cuomo’s administration, both houses of the Legislature have a supermajority of Democrats that could push their proposals through over his veto.
The governor, who has fought to reform New York’s reputation as one of the highest-taxed states in the nation, has brushed aside the idea of higher taxes on the wealthy, as discussed by the Legislature, and a transfer tax on stock transactions, another favorite of progressives.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie made no public mention of Cuomo or his plans later Monday.
Across the Capital Region, state legislators reacted to the governor’s State of the State on social media or through news releases:
- Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, decried a series of platitudes and a stock transfer tax that is effectively zero.
- Assemblymember Pat Fahy, D-Albany, said she shared Cuomo’s priorities for jobs and green energy.
- Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties, praised the plan, singling out broadband access and clean-energy proposals.
- Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Meco, worried about overspending and lack of good governance.
- Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Balston, called the plan overambitious and urged the governor to focus on vaccination and short-term economic relief.
- Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, welcomed the focus of some of Cuomo’s proposals but said they lacked specifics.
- Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said any attempt to reset New York’s economy must address why New Yorkers are moving out of the state in such great numbers, and Cuomo’s plan does not.