ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday kicked off the 2020 session of the New York State Legislature, calling for a massive expansion of Penn Station, passage of a $3 billion environmental bond act and a tax cut for small businesses — while trying again to legalize recreational marijuana.
Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, outlined his vision for the year in his annual State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center.
The speech typically represents the governor’s chance to outline a wish list for the year without having to explain in detail how to pay for everything. New York this year has an estimated $6 billion budget gap.
In that context, Cuomo offered a list initiatives.
Some cost nothing — such as outlawing Styrofoam cups, flavored electronic cigarettes and robocall scammers.
Some cost a lot of money but the bills don't come due soon — expanding Penn Station in Manhattan, studying high-speed rail upstate and funding environmental projects.
Others are proposals dealing with issues such as marijuana legalization, electric bikes and automatic voter registration that weren't passed during the busy 2019 legislative session.
Compared with recent years, Cuomo's speech Wednesday focused less on national affairs and politics and the administration of President Donald Trump.
In sum, the governor’s agenda reflected a lower-profile agenda than in 2019, when he and the Democratic-controlled legislature approved an expansive list of progressive legislation on abortion, bail, climate change, guns, immigration, sexual harassment and rent control.
All those issues had been bottled up by a Republican-led State Senate until the GOP lost its majority in the 2018 elections.
As in the past, Cuomo told legislators and audience members it wasn't enough to claim to be progressive. They must achieve progressive goals.
“Progressive government … confronts the problems honestly and accomplishes tangible progress," Cuomo said. "And when you make progress, it builds hope and then it builds confidence … Progressive government creates an uplifting social spiral.”
Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay criticized Cuomo's speech as a "mishmash of ideas" that failed to confront New York's "affordability crisis" that has triggered population loss.
"These are not proposals of promise, but rather a misguided mishmash of ideas that fails to confront the real issues we face and the reasons people are leaving New York in droves," said Barclay (R-Pulaski).
"New York’s property taxes are among the worst in America, out-migration has severely diminished our tax base and New York continues to lag other states that are enjoying a strong national economy," Barclay said. "Any speech that fails to address these obstacles to prosperity in our state is incomplete and inexcusable."
Some of Cuomo’s initiatives were previewed in the weeks leading up to his address.
Cuomo proposed $3 billion in borrowing to cover environmental projects including expansion of artificial reefs off Long Island, restocking the Great South Bay with clams and oysters, reducing farm runoff to prevent algal blooms and fortifying floodplains and flood barriers.
He backed a tax rate cut for small businesses from 6.5% to 4%; passage of a new domestic terrorism law; initiatives to permit paid surrogacy; allowing more movie theaters to serve alcohol; and expanding paid sick leave.
Cuomo called for increasing the income level for families to be eligible for the Excelsior Scholarship from $125,000 to $150,000. The scholarship provides a pathway for students to have tuition fully covered at the State University of New York system after exhausting all their federal grants, loans and other aid.
Cuomo again urged state lawmakers to legalize the recreational use of marijuana — a plan that was hung up last year over arguments about tax rates and how the proceeds would be used.
He also proposed a "global cannabis center" for research, to be housed on one of the SUNY campuses.
The governor didn't provide many specifics for tackling the budget deficit, but those are expected to be outlined later this month.
Cuomo did refer to the growing costs of Medicaid. He noted that state government has been covering more of counties' share, saying the "situation is unsustainable." Later, a Cuomo aide said the governor wasn't proposing to lift a cap on counties' cost.
The governor also addressed a spate of hate crimes in the state and what he called the "angry winds" of racism threatening the nation.
“We see it in housing discrimination on Long Island,” he said. “This hatred and division is an American cancer … it is this country consuming itself from within … if we don’t defeat it, it will defeat us.”
Cuomo was referring to a Newsday report in November, "Long Island Divided," that found evidence of widespread unequal treatment of prospective minority homebuyers compared with whites.
The report also found that Long island's largest real estate firms avoided suggesting and showing homes to would-be buyers in minority communities in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
Cuomo and state legislators have launched probes of allegations of housing discrimination revealed in the Newsday report.
ANDREW CUOMO INITIATIVES
- Legalize recreational marijuana.
- Expand the number of tracks in and out of Penn Station.
- Authorize $3 billion in borrowing for environmental projects.
- Enact automatic voter registration.
- Pass a new domestic terrorism law.
- Prohibit foam cups, flavored electronic cigarettes and synthetic derivatives of fentanyl.
- Approve electronic bikes and scooters.
- Allow more movie theaters to sell alcohol.
- End a ban on commercial surrogacy.