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Banking on Biden, Cuomo plans optimistic State of State agenda

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update from the State Capitol in Albany on Jan. 4. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo/TNS) Credit: TNS/Mike Groll

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo says his 11th State of the State address on Monday will include proposals such as legalizing marijuana and sports betting, major infrastructure projects and a plan to transform New York to a "post-COVID world," despite facing the deepest budget deficits and deadliest health crisis in state history.

Cuomo’s address is expected to be dominated by the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the effort to vaccinate all New Yorkers within months. He will also detail the reinvigoration of the economy, while contending with the spread of the more contagious strain of the virus first identified in the United Kingdom.

The speech is also expected to resurrect postponed environmental projects, including those to fund clean water efforts on Long Island; stalled transportation plans that could stave off deep cuts in service for the Long Island Rail Road, and statewide broadband internet to serve remote learning in schools and telemedicine, according to lobbyists, lawmakers and political observers.

On Sunday Cuomo announced that he would change Medicaid rules and state practices that have required in-office visits in some cases to treat health and mental issues; expand the staffing trained in telehealth that can provide some treatment; create inter-state agreements to increase the number of health care providers and consultants; require insurance companies to provide a telehealth option; and begin a telehealth training program that will include the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Cuomo is banking on another huge stimulus check from Washington, but how much aid there might be isn’t known.

The hope for another round of federal funding has some financial analysts worried that it will spur increased state spending. The analysts also fear an influx of Washington cash will allow Cuomo to avoid fixing structural changes in Medicaid and other spending that have been blamed for creating a $6 billion state deficit before the virus hit.

"Even generous federal aid won’t solve the problem. We have a structural problem," said Andrew Rein, president of the independent Citizens Budget Commission. "The optimism does not solve our long-run fiscal crisis … we will just end up kicking the can down the road."

For example, he noted Cuomo’s Medicaid Redesign Team a year ago came up $1 billion short of its savings goal, and the state still owes $3.5 billion for a short-term loan taken out in April because of COVID-19.

"With more money," said E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center think tank, "Cuomo could be expected to roll out a more costly agenda, although there’s no foreseeable federal bailout that will permanently cover the hole."

The State of the State speech has evolved from a status update to the Legislature required under the state constitution to a legislative agenda, said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

"Andrew Cuomo purposefully expanded the audience from the Legislature to the state as a whole," Benjamin said. "In a way he bypassed the Legislature to mobilize support for his key priorities."

Last week, Cuomo said he scrapped an address that he had warned would portend steep tax increases, deep cuts in service and layoffs that he blamed on the virus and Washington Republicans.

His rewrite began after Democrats won Georgia’s special election for two U.S. Senate seats on Tuesday. That propelled Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to majority leader and gave Democratic President-elect Joe Biden a much stronger hand to bail out the state, New York City and local governments from a $15 billion deficit.

Cuomo has sought additional funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and New Yorkers hardest hit by the impact of the virus but was thwarted by the U.S. Senate’s Republican majority and President Donald Trump.

Biden and Schumer could also revive Cuomo's effort to repeal Trump’s 2017 tax law, which capped the deductibility of state and local taxes on federal income taxes — known as SALT — and forced higher federal taxes on many New Yorkers.

"Georgia changes everything," Cuomo said. "Washington has abused New York state for four years … we have a lot of pain to be compensated for in New York. We have tenants who can’t pay their rent, we have landlords that can’t pay their mortgages, we have restaurants that need to be refinanced."

"And we have to look at this moment to anticipate the post-COVID world and build for the post-COVID world," Cuomo said.

Cuomo will deliver the speech remotely because of the COIVD-19 emergency. But beyond the pandemic, the speech will be a vehicle for bold, new measures, unencumbered by details such as how to pay for them. That won’t come until a separate budget speech later this month.

Cuomo said he will push for legalization of sports gambling and legalization of marijuana for recreational use, which would generate revenue.

"We have a historic moment to legalize cannabis in a way that brings new opportunities for communities across the state and acts as a catalyst for economic revitalization," said Jordan Isenstadt of the New York Cannabis Growers & Processors Association. "Now is the time."

Cuomo said his sports gambling proposal will be unique and generate as much as $500 million in revenues to the state annually.

Cuomo also wants to use federal aid to fund the big capital projects in which he revels and which can spark economies. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has renewed hope for billions of dollars from Washington to stave off the deepest service cuts and layoffs that months ago were projected for the Long Island Rail Road.

Cuomo also said federal funding would likely complete Manhattan’s Second Avenue Subway project and fund a $13 billion Gateway Tunnel project under the Hudson River.

Cuomo’s "post-COVID world" includes accelerating telemedicine and at-home remote learning for students by bringing broadband internet statewide, particularly in inner cities and rural areas. He also is re-imagining cities to contend with a new exodus to Long Island and other suburbs by exploring new roles for city blocks, such as arts and cafe districts

One of Cuomo’s biggest ideas before the coronavirus was the proposed $3 billion environmental bond act to purify water and preserve land while creating jobs. Cuomo shelved it when COVD-19 ravaged revenues. Advocates and legislators say they expect Cuomo to revive the bond act this year.

"The need for investment in our environment has only grown," said Peter M. Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY. "With last year likely to be the hottest year on record and COVID-19 causing more deaths in those forced to breathe air pollution — mainly those in Black and brown communities — the time for sweeping action is now."

But Cuomo also will have to contend with the growing number of progressive lawmakers in the State Legislature who have pushed hard to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires if any federal aid falls short, which critics say would drive big spenders and employers out of state.

"We believe that we must invest in New York," said Assemb. Carmen De La Rosa (D-Manhattan). "But not the New York of the rich, in the New York that we all live in. In the New York that has lines for food around the block."

Also on the agenda

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's State of the State speech will include some measures proposed with strong support in the Legislature. Cuomo said the address will include:

  • Expanding early voting and to allowing county boards of election to begin counting mail-in ballots when they are received, rather than waiting until the polls close on election night. Some results took a month to finalize last year.
  • Expanding domestic violence protections to allow judges to force abusers to pay moving expenses for victims; and to make abusers subject to a misdemeanor if they buy a gun.
  • Prohibiting penalties and late fees to be charged to tenants who were allowed under law to suspend rent while their incomes were cut because of COVID-19; he also wants to extend the moratorium on rent payments for qualified tenants and small business until May 1.
  • Creating a park on Manhattan’s West Side on Pier 76 that juts into the Hudson River. The Legislature a year ago required the New York Police Department to leave the pier to make way for new use. The pier was used for years to park towed vehicles.
  • Strengthen disciplinary actions for medical misconduct enforcement to improve patient safety. Cuomo has been criticized by patient advocates for providing hospitals with immunity from malpractice claims during the pandemic except for the most egregious cases of gross negligence or illegal acts.

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