Shaking off a blustering winter Albany day, thousands descended the steps to the underground concourse connecting New York State’s capital buildings to witness powerhouse Governor Andrew Cuomo deliver his second State of the State address Wednesday.
Having brought the state back from the brink of economic disaster, a confident Cuomo strode to the podium to a hearty reception. His approval ratings remain extremely high after pushing through landmark legislation such as the 2-percent property tax cap and marriage equality while managing to deliver an on-time budget in his freshman year. No small feat in Albany politics.
After singling out Suffolk County Executive Bellone at first, Cuomo’s only other mention of Long Island was an obligatory compliment of its beaches while touting the state’s tourism economy. Regionally specific plans for his sophomore effort were mostly mainland-oriented, such as investing $1 billion in Buffalo, although he didn’t mention his pending decision on opening up upstate to drilling for natural gas using a controversial practice known as fracking—despite an opposition rally just outside.
His most ambitious goal was replacing the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan with a new, $4 billion largest-in-the-nation convention center and hotel complex near the new Resorts World Casino at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, which recently became the first in New York City. Simultaneously, he plans to push for legalizing casinos statewide beyond those currently run by Indian tribes.
“We are in a state of denial,” he said of tribal gaming started 20 years ago by his father, former Governor Mario Cuomo. “We have tribal casinos and racinos all across the state.”
The trouble, according to Cuomo, is that “we don’t regulate it or capitalize upon it.” He said the state would see more than $1 billion in increased economic activity by legalizing casinos, characterizing it as a job-creation plan. Tribal leaders were not acknowledged during his remarks.
Cuomo had too much ground to cover to get in depth on every topic. He promised to expand upon his accomplishments, noting the gradual repeal of the unpopular MTA payroll tax, another round of competitive round of grants through recently formed regional economic development councils as well as new financial regulation and consumer protection initiatives.
His speech was evenly balanced between economic and social issues. And he took care to pay attention to Buffalo, saying the Queen City is in a “crisis” of poverty.
“We did it in Albany, we can do it in Buffalo,” he said.
Cuomo also made sure to show his sense of humor, which helped some of the mundane parts go down more smoothly. The most humorous moments of the afternoon came during a segment on taxes.
He touted the lowest middle class tax rate in 58 years as giant screens behind him flashed an image of the governor as a baby and his ex-governor father with a twinkle in his eye. “It was a long, long time ago,” Cuomo quipped, noting he was just a glimmer in his father’s eye.
State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) was only 4 years old but “a dapper lad” and even then-8-year-old Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) “was still Speaker Silver,” he said as screens projected an image of Skelos and Silver as young boys with adult faces holding hands—a not-so-subtle nod to the remarkable relative harmony over the past year between the leaders of the state legislature’s two chambers.
Perhaps his most clever presentation was regarding education. The struggle with the state teachers’ union and fallout from the 2-percent tax cap was mitigated by a poignant, yet humorous approach;. The governor professed to have learned an important lesson in his first year: “Everyone in education has a lobbyist.”
From superintendents to bus drivers, Cuomo said, “The only group without lobbyists are the students.” With that the video screen flashed an image of the governor’s office door with dual titles of Governor and Student Lobbyist stenciled on the door.
“I am taking a second job,” he said to rousing applause and focus turned to 300 schoolchildren invited to attend the ceremony.
The anti-fracking rally was still taking place as the auditorium emptied out after Cuomo concluded. Adelaide, a middle-aged woman and cancer survivor who had come to Albany with a busload of protesters from Ithaca, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the governor failed to address fracking in his speech.
“I think it’s criminal,” she said above the shouts of her fellow protesters. Another man from Ithaca also said he wasn’t surprised the governor didn’t touch the subject.
He said: “It’s not just me I’m looking out for, this affects everybody.”
While he may have dodged that issue, Cuomo flexed some muscle fresh off major accomplishments, totaled up all of the proposals and affixed a price tag of $25 billion in combined state, federal and private investment if all of his initiatives were to move forward.
• Food Stamps – Stating that 37 percent of New Yorkers who qualify for food stamps do not enroll in the program, Cuomo proposed the elimination of fingerprinting to help erase the stigma associated with food insecurity. Key Quote: “I understand fraud protection but don’t make a child go to bed hungry.”
• Tax Reform – The administration proposes the formation of a Tax Reform and Fairness Commission to close tax loopholes and incentivize job growth.
• Disaster Preparedness – Cuomo proposed improvements to the emergency management operation in the country, noting the bravery of first responders who aided New Yorkers during Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Irene. Key Quote: “I wasn’t going to get into a debate about global warming but 100-year floods happen every two years.”
• Minority and Women-Owned Businesses – Pledged bonding support for $200 million in contracts for MWBE.
• SUNY – Cuomo referred to the SUNY system as the “great equalizer” and a “precious jewel” that his administration is committed to polishing.
• Pension Reform – Cuomo proposes a new tier for union pensions, saying “I understand the politics and the opposition… but we are talking about union employees that don’t exist at this time.” He said pensions are not supposed to be a legacy that can be passed on.
• Mandate Relief – Acknowledging the difficulties faced by school districts as a result of the property tax cap reform, Cuomo offered support for mandate relief but no specifics. Key quote: “Vote this year for mandate reform because local governments deserve it.”
• New York Works Fund and Task Force – Cuomo proposed the formation of a new committee designed to coordinate New York’s capital-intensive construction and several necessary improvements to infrastructure. This includes finally building a new Tappan Zee Bridge, because “15 years of talking and planning and commiserating is too long.” Key quote: “Can’t be on government time. It has to be in real time.”
• Energy Highway System – The governor likened the plan to Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, which he called a model for planning the energy system to meet increasing energy demand downstate and a purported surplus of energy upstate.
• Convention Center at Aqueduct – A proposed convention center would replace the Javits Center and free it up for public/private development as part of a comprehensive plan modeled after strategies employed in rebuilding Battery Park City. The proposed master plan would also tie in Moynihan Station and Hudson Yards, both enormous parcels under development on the West Side of Manhattan. Though Javits sits on a large parcel by Manhattan standards, it is small relative to more competitive convention spaces in the country that do a much greater volume of business than Javits. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is reportedly onboard with this concept.