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For the state, a balancing act

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany on Jan. 8, 2020. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Pushing for progress is a noble endeavor. So there was plenty to like in the plan for New York for 2020 laid out by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in his State of the State speech. 

But lurking is austere fiscal reality: The state budget is a mess. It has a projected deficit of $6.1 billion. Democratic lawmakers in the State Senate and especially in the Assembly talk about raising taxes and not cutting spending, while Cuomo opposes more taxes. It's an age-old dance, yes, but now with a less melodious soundtrack.

Much of the typically big thinking Cuomo laid out Wednesday in his blueprint for the state's future — an expansion of rail capacity and terminals at Penn Station, revitalizing the Erie Canal corridor — and a host of other ideas, too, are welcome with the caveat that progress includes solving the state's fiscal woes.

BUDGET

Cuomo will present his budget plan later this month, but we already know the solution begins with Medicaid, responsible for about half the deficit. Slowing the rate of increase is essential; spending caps might be needed. Reimbursements for home health care given by family members or friends should be tightened to prevent fraud, as should payments for nonemergency transportation. Cuomo said local governments used to pay a larger share of Medicaid expenses and talked about the need to restructure, seemingly setting the stage for spreading the pain. On a brighter note, he proposed lowering tax rates for small businesses and middle-class New Yorkers, good ideas if he can balance the books.

ENVIRONMENT

Cuomo's proposed $3 billion environmental or "back to nature" bond act, to be put to a public vote in November, would greatly benefit Long Island's quality of life and economy. It would restore wetlands, reclaim floodplains, double the acreage of artificial reefs off Long Island, plant 200 million oysters and clams in the Great South Bay, and fund water quality projects as part of its emphasis on restoring nature. Long Island voters will be pivotal to its passage. Earmarking a specific amount for LI would be helpful. Referendum wording is critical. Money should be disbursed through a Regional Economic Development Council-style competition; if local municipalities or nonprofits have the best bids and are best equipped to do the work, they win. This money must not get clogged in the machinery of big government, and it can't be a boondoggle.

A new solicitation for at least 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind is welcome, as is an overdue proposal for an upgraded transmission line to bring upstate land-based renewable energy to downstate populations.  We also like plans to expand the use of electric vehicles, ban Styrofoam, and start a research center for devising innovative ways to reuse glass to help solve a growing recycling problem.

MARIJUANA

Legalizing it is inevitable. But it must be done right, which includes an effective test for driving under the influence. Reports suggest researchers are closing in on a solution, which could be ready by the time a law is adopted and regulations are written. The process should be open with a full discussion of potential pitfalls, and a realistic timetable for implementation.

STILL AT IT

Cuomo rightly continues to push some measures that have yet to gain traction. Gestational surrogacy is the law in most of the country; it's time New York lifted its ban. Requiring some businesses to offer paid sick leave is humane. Other common-sense proposals include reducing the plague of robocalls, keeping vaping products from young people, closing the rape intoxication loophole to make it easier to hold abusers accountable whether the victim was intoxicated voluntarily or involuntarily, and amending the state constitution's equal rights amendment to include sex, gender identity and other categories as protected classes.

We also strongly support Cuomo's proposal to require state officials — including the governor, attorney general, comptroller and lawmakers — to disclose their tax returns. With the legislature disappointingly grabbing a pay raise but unwilling to support a ban on outside income, making tax returns public will let New Yorkers see who is paying lawmakers and others and to whom lawmakers might owe favors. And why wait for a law? Let Senate and Assembly members of conscience come forward now with their returns. 

OMISSIONS

Curiously, Cuomo failed to mention bail reform. This will be one of the session's most polarizing issues. Last year's reforms, while much needed to address racial bias in the criminal justice system, failed in some instances to recognize the obligation to keep the public safe. Some defendants who are violent or severely mentally ill, or who present a serious risk of dangerous behavior, simply cannot be safely released. The legislature must revisit the criminal justice code to address legitimate concerns about public safety.

Cuomo also did not mention sports gambling. That was unfortunate. It will be on the agenda this year. Better to deal with it in the daylight than have it crop up in last-minute horse-trading. And while the governor briefly mentioned housing discrimination, he did not propose funding for a vigorous paired-testing program of the kind used by Newsday in its recent Long Island Divided project, which found evidence of widespread disparate treatment of minority homebuyers. That was a mistake. Such a program is desperately needed and only the state can fund it.

There is much progress that can be made. But the bills also must be paid. The delicate balancing act begins now.

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