ALBANY - In his first State of the State address, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Wednesday outlined an ambitious agenda for shrinking state government, capping property taxes, easing business taxes and toughening ethics laws - a Republican-sounding playbook that the Democrat said would transform a troubled New York.
"This is a time of crisis in our state," the governor said, listing the culprits as the national economy, out-of-control state government costs and "a dysfunctional political system" that has lost the people's trust.
"For New York, it is a time for change, my friends," the governor told some 2,000 lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public gathered in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. "New York has no future as the tax capital of the nation."
In his 40-minute speech, the Democrat gave "shout-outs" to various liberal issues, such as calling for legalizing same-sex marriage, boosting "greener" communities and overhauling the juvenile justice system - the longest, loudest applause of the day came when he said the state could no longer warehouse children in prison-style detention centers just to save public-employee jobs.
But the emphasis of his first address to the State Legislature was on the economy, ethics and government redesign. He called for redesigning Medicaid, local government aid and school aid. He called for creating a new commission to come up with a plan to reduce the number of state agencies, authorities and commissions.
He vowed he would close the current fiscal-year deficit without raising taxes or increasing borrowing. He promised to offer a plan for public financing of campaigns, require full disclosure of lawmakers' outside incomes, end "pay to play" practices and push for an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative districts.
Each of the initiatives he sketched out could run into broad opposition from various factions of the State Legislature and special interest groups in attendance. But tone played a strategic role in his delivery.
Cuomo used not only a rhetorical cudgel but also humor, self-deprecation and a sight gag to try to get buy-in from a room full of potential opponents. At one point, the giant TV screens featured Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) as battleship captains in Navy attire, with an airplane bomber - dubbed the "special interests" - firing missiles at Cuomo.
It was a moment oflevity that brought chuckles from lawmakers - a striking contrast to four years ago when fellow Democrat Eliot Spitzer castigated them and demanded they help him change the government.
In delivering his State of the State address at the convention center, Cuomo broke tradition by moving it from the State Assembly chamber - a bit of unmistakable political body language that irked some state legislators. But while he decried the "dysfunction" of state government, Cuomo also called for collaboration with lawmakers.
For a day at least, lawmakers expressed support for his agenda. Silver, thought to be the strongest obstacle to a property tax cap, said he'd support it.
"I'll say this one more time so there is no doubt," Silver said, "the [Democrat-led] Assembly is ready and willing to work with the governor and our Senate colleagues."
Skelos, whose Republican conference holds a slim 32-30 Senate majority, said he was taking Cuomo's plea for cooperation sincerely. "The message that was most important today is that the governor wants to reform the structure of our government, cut spending, not increase taxes and focus on private sector job creation," he said.
Even longtime Capitol observers said they were optimistic, for now. "Maybe, just maybe, the stars have aligned," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "This could be the year that reform finally comes to Albany."
With James T. Madore and Michael Amon
Major points laid out by Cuomo in his address yesterday
CAP PROPERTY TAX Cuomo has called for a cap of 2 percent or the rate of inflation (whichever is less). The cap could be overridden only by a vote of the local governing board and a 60 percent majority in a local referendum.
Reduce government agencies, authorities and commissions by 20 percent. Cuomo would put together a commission (called Spending and Government Efficiency, or SAGE) which would design a "right-sizing" plan that Cuomo would eventually deliver to the legislature for action.
TOUGHEN ETHICS Though precise details weren't immediately available, Cuomo said he'd propose lowering campaign contribution limits, offering public financing for campaigns, requiring full disclosure of lawmakers' outside income and outlawing "pay to play" practices.
Cuomo called for overhauling the Excelsior Tax Credit program for businesses, making permanent the Power for Jobs programs that aid manufacturers and creating regional economic development councils, headed by Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy.
REDESIGN STATE AID
Cuomo talked of plans for Medicaid, local government aid and school aid. He would make part of school aid competitive, which he said would reward student performance improvements. He would offer grants to local governments to pursue mergers and consolidations. On Medicaid, he would put together a team charged with producing a redesign plan by April 1. It's based on a Wisconsin model that reduced costs by redesigning the system rather than just focusing on reimbursement rates for health care providers.