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Cuomo faces challenges in State of the State message

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shown

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo is shown in this file photo. (Jan. 17, 2012) Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

ALBANY -- Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State of the State speech Wednesday will map a pathway to get his promised property tax cut and other policy goals through a State Legislature still smarting from his commission that targeted corruption among lawmakers.

Cuomo has succeeded politically by balancing measured fiscal conservatism with liberal initiatives such as gay marriage. As he runs for re-election this year, the governor is expected to push to use much of a $2 billion state budget surplus to subsidize local property tax cuts.

"A judgment has been made by the governor that tax cutting is a winning strategy," said Gerald Benjamin, a political-science professor at SUNY New Paltz.

 

Programs and proposals

But Cuomo, in his fourth State of the State address -- important for his re-election and to a potential 2016 presidential bid -- faces challenges.

He will be pressured from his political base on the left, led by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) with support from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for a piece of the first budget surplus in nearly a decade for projects that include expanded prekindergarten.

Cuomo in his speech will detail his plans for 2014, including the selection of four upstate casinos and video slot machine centers on Long Island, a Start-Up NY program that seeks to lure new high-technology employers with the assurance of 10 years of tax-free operation, and a campaign to heavily promote tourism.

He is expected to propose a "death penalty" for chronically failing schools, limits on the influence of big donors in election campaigns and restrictions on the use of campaign funds that some lawmakers have used to supplement their lifestyles and stifle opposition.

He also wants to simplify the state income and business tax codes, based on recommendations of his 2013 tax commissions.

But lawmakers return to session this month after a bitter fight with Cuomo over his efforts to attack corruption in Albany.

Cuomo last year failed to win approval for an ethics package that sought to limit campaign donors' influence with lawmakers, identify conflicts of interest and mandate disclosure of more of legislators' outside income. That rejection by the legislature prompted Cuomo to create an investigative commission under the state's powerful Moreland Act to recommend new laws and to chase any evidence of corruption.

 

Commission backlash

The governor sought to subpoena lists of lawmakers' private law clients and data from legislative campaign committees. No governor before had dared push for those private records. Silver and Senate co-leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) mounted a joint legal challenge based on protections stemming from the state constitution's separation of powers. Assembly majority spokesman Michael Whyland in November called the subpoenas "a fishing expedition."

Cuomo's commission had called legislators' refusal to provide the information "legally indefensible, ethically repugnant." The Moreland Commission issued a report in December that hinted at several investigations.

"Now everyone is waiting for the other shoe to drop," Benjamin said.

Democrats who lead the Assembly want to increase school aid by more than Cuomo's planned 4 percent hike. They hope to spend millions of dollars on public financing of campaigns and for a "Dream Act" to provide college aid to undocumented immigrants. They are pushing for protection of women's rights to late-term abortions, which Senate Republicans blocked in 2013.

Silver is expected to get the support of de Blasio on those issues, experts, lobbyists and rank-and-file Democrats said.

"You can either work for the middle class or you can work for millionaires," said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All Coalition, an Albany-based coalition of nonprofit progressive groups and unions.

Cuomo also faces Senate Republicans who are fighting to keep their last bastion of power through more and deeper business tax cuts.

Few lawmakers and lobbyists expect Cuomo to break his silence on whether he will approve hydrofracking in an upstate natural gas deposit, which would bring revenue to the state and jobs to the long-depressed Southern Tier. For three years, Cuomo has delayed a decision. Instead, he's ordered further public health studies.

 

Waiting for surprises

But lawmakers and lobbyists watching Cuomo's speech for support of their issues also know to expect a surprise.

"Every governor tries to work in something that nobody else has been thinking about," said Robert Bellafiore, former speechwriter for three-term Gov. George E. Pataki.

Cuomo's speeches may be a mash-up of ingredients for typical Albany deals linking several often-unrelated issues.

That strategy could work well for Cuomo this year.

"I think what is most interesting is that voters have a lot of priorities and there is no clear-cut single one or two priorities," said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg.

The Siena poll also found Cuomo at his lowest job approval rating after three years of near-record popularity that boosted his power in Albany. A narrow majority favored giving him another term and so far, he faces no strong challenger.

"Insiders expect him to be re-elected, so how much do you want to put on the line to take him on?" Greenberg said.

State of the state

 

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will outline his 2014 agenda of tax cuts and other policy issues in Wednesday's State of the State speech. They are expected to include:

- A local property tax cut subsidized by a state budget surplus. The proposal could factor in household income to direct more of a break to middle-class families.

- Details of his Start-Up New York program designed to lure high-technology employers to the state with the promise of 10 years of tax-free operation

- A "death penalty" for chronically failing schools

- A simpler tax code with additional tax cuts

- Measures to combat political corruption

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