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Cuomo calls for $100 billion in new construction, infrastructure projects; critics have questions

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers his State of

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo delivers his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo came into office looking to cut New York’s massive spending. Now flush with cash, the Democrat focused most of his annual State of the State address Wednesday on outlining an ambitious building and spending agenda that “would make Governor Rockefeller jealous.”

Cuomo also took his fourth swing at ethics reform since taking office, offering proposals that have been floated in some form before, including closing a campaign-contribution loophole that played a role in two recent political corruption trials. But it was a small portion of an address that emphasized infrastructure projects, and increasing the minimum wage and aid for the homeless. Legislators also seemed to downplay corruption, saying they would address it, but stressing more the need to tackle education, infrastructure and jobs.

Cuomo’s 90-minute speech, his sixth, included emotional moments when the governor expressed regret for not spending more time with his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, in his dying days, and recalled his fear when his longtime partner, Sandra Lee, learned about her potential breast cancer diagnosis. He used those deeply personal stories to pitch ideas for paid family leave and increased cancer screenings.

Cuomo had unveiled most of his splashy, big-ticket items in a series of news conferences last week leading up to his address. He promised $100 billion in infrastructure projects, calling it an ambitious plan that would rival Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s building spree five decades ago.

That spurred applause — and skepticism.

“I sure hope he has the winning Powerball ticket to pay for all this,” said Assemb. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue), referring to the more-than $1.5 billion prize in the multistate lottery game.

The one area Cuomo hadn’t addressed during his weeklong run-up to the speech was ethics. In his address, he didn’t directly refer to the convictions of ex-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and ex-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos on corruption charges just weeks ago; rather he alluded to them as “recent acts” that “undermined” trust in government.

On Wednesday, Cuomo called for capping outside incomes for lawmakers — who are considered part-time — at 15 percent of their base annual salary of $79,500. He proposed establishing a voluntary public campaign-financing system, closing a loophole that allowed companies to funnel contributions through subsidiaries and circumvent donation limits and making the legislature subject to freedom of information law requests.

He also called for allowing “early voting” to increase turnout in elections.

Good-government groups applauded the ideas, but said the key is whether Cuomo will expend any effort needed to get the items approved.

“The rhetoric is positive, but we have talked to him for many years about these things,” said Barbara Bartoletti of the New York State League of Women Voters. “Let’s just see if he uses his political capital and actually pushes to get these reforms.”

The income restriction raised immediate opposition from Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-East Northport), who dislikes the idea of creating professional, full-time legislators.

“I think having people with diverse backgrounds who have an understanding of the real world is something of value,” Flanagan told reporters. He noted that though Cuomo touted the income restriction as matching that of Congress, members of Congress have much higher salaries. In a video response posted online, Flanagan said: “At the end of the day, all the rules in the world won’t prevent bad people from doing bad things.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) too was noncommittal, saying his Democratic conference would review the proposals.

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