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In 2021 Message, Cuomo Says "We Are At War” With COVID

WAMC screenshot of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2021 State of the State Address delivered January 11, 2021
WAMC screenshot of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2021 State of the State Address delivered January 11, 2021 ";

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday gave what he says is the first of four State of the State speeches. The Democrat says fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will be the top priority.  Cuomo gave his speech from the War Room in the state Capitol, an ornate lobby with murals memorializing New York’s military battles. He says the number one priority in 2021 is fighting and defeating a disease that has sickened over a million New Yorkers and killed more than 39,000.

“The War Room is fitting,” Cuomo said. “Because we are at war. A war that began early last year when we were ambushed by the COVID virus. And a war that continues today.” 

Cuomo says he will also focus on turning around what he says is a “short-term,” economic crisis caused by pandemic-related shutdowns, and planning for an economic resurgence.

The governor says he is also focusing on getting the limited supply of vaccines out faster. So far the rollout has been uneven. Registration for New Yorkers over the age of 75, who are included in the next group eligible for the vaccine, began Monday. But some providers listed on the state health department’s website said they were not going to be giving out vaccines, and other links or phone numbers were dead ends.

The governor says he is working with Cornell University and Northwell Health to form what he calls a new public health corps, to help speed up vaccinations.

“We will hire 1,000 health corps fellows who agree to serve for one year,” Cuomo said. “They will be trained to facilitate a state wide coordinated vaccination operation and do it safely and quickly in every part of the state.”  

Cuomo blames the federal government for not getting enough vaccines to the state more quickly. The governor said as of Monday afternoon, more than 605,000 vaccines doses had been administered in New York.

Republican state lawmakers were vocal in their criticisms, saying the Democratic administration was unprepared.

Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt says he and other senators were getting phone calls all day from constituents complaining about the state’s vaccination website not working properly.

“It’s harder for people to believe that you can fix these larger systemic issues when you can’t do small things right,” Ortt said.

The Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, is also expressing concerns. 

“The vaccine rollout, as we know, has been extremely disappointing,” Stewart-Cousins said.

Stewart-Cousins says Democratic senators have requested and received briefings from the state department of health, and are encouraged that more sites will be opening soon, but she says more needs to be done.  

The state health department announced a new centralized hotline, that opened at 4 p.m. Monday, to help ease the confusion, and said that beginning Friday, larger mass vaccination sites at SUNY campuses and other locations will conduct walk in clinics. Appointments are still necessary. 

In his State of the State address, the governor also continued his call for Washington to deliver a bailout package for states hard hit by the pandemic. Cuomo has said he’s more hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden, once he’s inaugurated, and the newly Democratic-led Congress will provide aid to help New York balance its $15 billion deficit.

Cuomo says that if federal help doesn’t come before the state budget is due in April, he’ll have to take “extraordinary and negative measures” including cutting school aid by 20% and making deep health care cuts in the midst of a pandemic.

And he continues to warn that the proposals by many Democratic lawmakers to raise income taxes on the wealthy, won’t bring in enough to close the gap.

“If we raised taxes to the highest income tax rate in the nation on all income over one million dollars,” Cuomo said. “We would only raise $1.5 billion.”

Democratic Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins says she believes that given the state’s growing income inequality and its impacts, it’s necessary to change New York’s tax structure. She also says the governor’s estimate that just $1.5 billion could be raised from the wealthy is too low, and that a more comprehensive restructuring of the state’s tax system could yield more revenue.

“We’re more than willing to look at taxing millionaires and billionaires, because again, we need to rebuild our economy, we can’t just wait for Washington,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I don’t know what they are going to do.”

Senate Republican Minority Leader Ortt says he found a lot to agree with in the Democratic governor’s speech, including proposals to expand broadband to underserved areas. Ortt says he agrees with the governor’s reluctance to impose new taxes on the wealthy.

“I think he understands that this has the potential, at critical time for our economy, when you want people investing here, you want people coming to New York, you want these folks hiring folks,” said Ortt. “There’s a potential this could have the reverse effect.”   

Cuomo announced earlier that he will propose legalizing the adult recreational use of marijuana in the state budget, an idea long supported by Democrats in the legislature. Ortt is not ruling out Republican support of the proposal, but he and other GOP senators will need to see the details first. 

The governor is expected to deliver three more speeches this week, laying out more of his plans for the year.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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