In many ways, Governor Cuomo’s 2020 State of the State address last week was like many that have preceded it. In modern times, the state of the State address mimics the pomp of the national State of the Union address: lots of rhetorical flourishes, calls for actions on important issues, with little in the way of real details.
When governors first get elected, their State of the State addresses are forward looking and reformist. Particularly if they are replacing a predecessor from a different political party or one tarred with scandal, new governors tend to offer what they characterize as a “bold, new” approach to the issues facing the state while also bashing the previous officeholder.
As governors remain in office the State of the State becomes more and more about the Administration’s successes and less and less about specific reforms. The long-serving governor has become the status quo and reforms imply his/her own policy failures.
Governor Cuomo’s 2020 address spent much of its time on successes, much of which he can rightfully claim, ideas for the various regions of the state and some ideas to grapple with problems.
He contrasted the successes of New York with the gridlock, partisan sniping, and – frankly – the “circus” of noise that emanates from the national government. His nearly 80-minute address spent most of the time on his achievements and how New York under his leadership contrasts with Washington. It wasn’t until the first hour of speech was over that he raised the looming projected $6 billion deficit facing the state.
While admitting that the problem existed, the governor spent little time discussing how it would be addressed. State of the State addresses are generally “good news” presentations; the “bad news” is found in the budget, usually a couple of weeks later. This year looks to be no different.
The governor spent considerable time on a growing public safety threat from domestic terrorists, particularly those involved in hate crimes.
Many of the governor’s new ideas touched on important issues. Here are a few of the issues mentioned in his speech and included in his 317-page briefing book:
- The governor is proposing a $3 billion environmental bond act. Calling his proposal the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, the plan — which would need the approval of voters this November – would fund natural restoration and resiliency programs across the state. The governor proposes to use the money to restore habitats for fish and wildlife, fight invasive species, protect against flooding, boost fish production at fisheries and double the state's artificial reef in the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound.
- He called for support to allow for the legal sale of marijuana without a prescription in New York. If approved the Administration believes that it would raise $300 million when fully implemented.
- He proposed that lawmakers approve a plan to require that all elected officials making over $100,000 publicly disclose their tax returns.
- He called for various tax cuts for small businesses and middle-income individuals. How these are paid for with a multi-billion-dollar deficit remains to be seen.
- Lastly, he vowed to fight for greater equity in state funding for K-12 schools. How that will be funded in the context of a budget deficit is unknown.
The governor also called for action to “prevent the blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of online content — practices that undermine a free and open internet.” He called for an expansion of the state’s college financial aid program, known as the Excelsior Scholarship, to families with incomes up to $150,000. He called for tools to better regulate robocalls and “predatory” debt collectors. He called for greater voting protections.
A big issue left out of the governor’s speech and briefing book was how to overhaul New York’s much-maligned ethics oversight entity.
But the big issue for 2020 remains: How will the state balance its fiscal books and eliminate a significant shortfall? This being an election year, how that question gets answered may well best tell New Yorkers the state of their state.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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