The first two years of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration were ambitious, but his vision was tempered by a steely realism about the state of New York's finances and its divisive politics. The formula garnered him more success than any other recent governor of New York has enjoyed, and brought Albany a competence and momentum that was sorely needed.
The State of the State speech the governor delivered Wednesday, though, outlined a different sort of vision: expensive, expansive, unabashedly progressive -- and potentially unworkable.
If ever there were a time for Cuomo to embrace outsized goals, it is now. His approval rating is hovering near 70 percent. With the power-sharing agreement in the State Senate that will let a Democratic leader introduce legislation, he can float progressive initiatives that a purely Republican-run Senate might have quashed. He may, in fact, need to do so to stay out in front of the liberal demands of Senate and Assembly Democrats. And his impassioned exhortations Wednesday in favor of a woman's right to choose and for strengthening gun laws seem designed to win back traditional support from the left both locally and nationally after two years of, with the notable exception of approval for same-sex marriage, mostly conservative initiatives.
Look at the plans he's proposing, and the road Cuomo has laid out appears far more difficult than what he's aimed for in the past. Some of his goals, though attractive, may be unattainable. Others seem too expensive. And a few may simply fail to garner political support.
Fully realized, the proposals Cuomo laid out last week would cost billions upon billions of dollars. The most costly ideas are in education: expansions of classroom time by 25 percent, which he promised the state would pay the full tab for; full-day prekindergarten and a transformation of schools in low-income communities into centers that provide medical care, nutrition and family counseling; and $60,000 four-year stipends to our best educators to create a master teachers program. These are all fine ideas, but the state has struggled to balance its books and already faces a $1-billion deficit headed into next year's budget. Public school districts, hampered by the property tax cap and rising pension and health care costs, are cutting at every turn.
Where will this money be found?
and casino gambling
Also costly are some of the economic development proposals the governor floated. There's a venture capital fund that would allow the state to invest in high-tech start-ups. There's the New York Greenbank, a $1-billion pot that would invest in clean technologies. There are also renewed and modernized workforce training initiatives, and $1 billion for 14,000 affordable housing units.
Again, there's nothing wrong with these proposals, except a lack of funds in state coffers and no explanation of where else the money will come from.
Cuomo also focused on renewing the upstate economy, but his splashiest initiative -- three casino-resort complexes as the anchor of a marketing campaign for the area -- was more depressing than inspiring. Cuomo cited New Jersey and Connecticut as places where casinos draw crowds and economic activity, but in truth, Atlantic City, and the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut are struggling to maintain their economic footholds.
Upstate New York, a once-proud industrial powerhouse, has been in decline for decades. The cities have emptied, property taxes are sky high relative to median income, and jobs are scarce. Casinos are a notoriously iffy form of economic development, and a weak strategy on which to base the revival of such a troubled region. And the governor's failure to mention any casino plans for New York City or Long Island, where they'd be a complement to solid economies rather than a basis for creating one, was a noticeable gap.
Cuomo was strongest in talking about superstorm Sandy, about the lessons the storm taught us, the fight to rebuild our region, and being ready for the next shot Mother Nature takes at us. Here he laid out desperately needed improvements like water, food and fuel storage; a training and coordination system for emergency responders and volunteers; and a sensible plan for what can and can't be built (or rebuilt) on our shores. What Cuomo intends to do in this area will still cost plenty, but unlike some of his other talking points, federal money will be available, and the actions aren't optional.
Being progressive on social issues can be the easiest form of societal improvement and political gain, and Cuomo hit this hard, promising restrictive gun laws, improvements in gender equality and, in a thrice-intoned chorus, defense of abortion rights. New York is already a leader on such issues, and Cuomo was mostly preaching to the choir on them, but that doesn't make the message of the sermon, and New York's leadership on social justice, any less valuable.
A expensive path
It's tempting to dismiss much of what Cuomo said last week as purely aspirational, but he's already been so successful that we hesitate to do so. He has proposed a lofty, deeply expensive and appropriate path. It's just not clear yet how he can lead us down that path to the promised land he is touting.