ALBANY — Construction projects and the minimum wage will take center stage in the 2016 state legislative session as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo works to build a visible legacy.
Ethics? Lawmakers might get around to that, too, after the stunning convictions on corruption charges of both house leaders just weeks ago.
Cuomo, a 58-year-old Democrat entering his sixth year in office, already has rolled out most of his high-profile proposals in the week leading up to his State of the State address, which is set for Wednesday. Much of it centers on a construction wish list that would total billions and billions of dollars: Adding a third Long Island Rail Road track that runs to Hicksville; expanding the Javits Center for more convention space and overhauling Penn Station in Manhattan; and spending $22 billion on upstate roads and bridges.
Add that to his previous commitments to renovate LaGuardia Airport and build a rail tunnel to New Jersey and the governor has an inventory of would-be signature projects, though he has done little yet to explain how each would be funded. Critics point out that some of the items are dusted-off proposals from decades gone by and that the bulk of the costs could come due long after Cuomo has left office.
It’s the continuation of a focus for Cuomo since his second year in office, when he floated an idea for the “world’s largest convention center” in Queens, a plan that ultimately folded, and began steps to rebuild the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River.
“The governor is rightfully focusing on infrastructure projects throughout the state and if it lends to his legacy, so be it,” said Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association. “Good policy is good politics and I think the infrastructure investment is needed.”
Cuomo also has said he wants to be the first governor to enact a $15-per-hour statewide minimum wage. The Republican-led state Senate, which has opposed wage hikes in the past, could be seen as ready to bargain. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport) hasn’t ruled out the wage hike, but says it must be paired with help for businesses.
Flanagan also said he’d push to restore a certain type of education aid that was reduced amid the Great Recession, an issue dear to Long Island and upstate schools.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said his priorities include the minimum wage, paid family leave, the “millionaires’ tax,” and a “Dream Act” to provide college aid to immigrants brought to the U.S. as children without proper documentation.
Lawmakers will aim to adopt a state budget — in the neighborhood of $150 billion — by the March 31 deadline.
Among the other issues that will arise: raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and renewing the “SUNY 2020” plan that implements steady tuition increases. The governor has promised legislation to reduce homelessness.
Lawmakers will be under great pressure to act in the wake of the convictions of ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in separate corruption trials. The fall of two of New York’s most powerful politicians has sparked calls to ban lawmakers’ outside incomes, end loopholes that allow corporations to ignore campaign-contribution limits, and appoint a truly independent ethics watchdog.
“The people of the state are looking at us to take some concrete action,” Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) told her colleagues last Wednesday, the first day of the legislative session. “Let’s not bury our heads in the sand and act like nothing is wrong.”
Cuomo has promised to unveil a series of ethics proposals this year.
But for now, the emphasis is on big-ticket, splashy items.
Think big, Cuomo told the Long Island Association in unveiling his LIRR plan to add a third track. He also wants to do a feasibility study for a bridge to connect Long Island to the Bronx, Westchester or Connecticut, and a deepwater port at Shoreham.
“Our history as New Yorkers was we took on the big challenges,” Cuomo said. “We need to reignite that ambition and that daring.”
But the governor has been vague about funding ongoing projects, such as the Tappan Zee, much less his new proposals, critics have said.
“He seems to want to have big, flashy things, when what remains unclear is how he is going to fix the existing things,” said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an anti-tax think tank, noting that New York’s aging highways, rails and bridges are in poor repair.
“He seems to be talking about painting a house that has rotting timbers,” McMahon said.
With Michael Gormley