Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday outlined what he hopes are the next steps to reviving New York state and moving out of his famous father's shadow.
He set an aggressive, if less dramatic, agenda for his second year after a first year widely praised as both fiscally conservative and progressive in breaking years of political gridlock to legalize gay marriage. It includes plans for the world's largest convention center in New York City and a $1 billion jobs initiative for the long distressed city of Buffalo.
"One year ago, we were divided as a state," he said. "Upstate and downstate, millionaires and the middle class, gay and straight, Democrats and Republicans.
"Our state had a fiscal deficit," he said, but the "more pronounced problem was a trust deficit, a performance deficit, and an integrity deficit ... our people had problems, and our government did not have the capacity or the credibility to help."
Back then, he said, New York faced historic deficits, partisan gridlock and an unprecedented string of corruption convictions and scandals. Less than a month after his 54th birthday, Cuomo's second State of the State speech comes as he enjoys the same record-high approval ratings that rushed him into office in 2010.
"2011 will go down in the history books as an extraordinary success," Cuomo said to cheers. "We restored New York's reputation as the progressive capital of the nation."
As with his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo's every major speech is parsed nationwide by those handicapping future presidential runs.
"He was absolutely presidential," said Hank Sheinkopf, a national political adviser who worked in the Clinton White House, where Cuomo served as housing secretary. "Few governors in the country have plotted such an aggressive course ... It was a perfect speech because it was populist, progressive, patriotic, pomp and just plain guts."
The speech titled "Building a New New York with You" includes plans for a $4 billion convention center and hotel complex at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens to be built by a private developer; a new commission to force "an overhaul" of public education, including teacher evaluations; a jobs program including a massive road and bridge effort; $1 billion in incentives to lure jobs to Buffalo; and voluntary public financing of political campaigns.
"Let's build the largest convention center in the nation, period," Cuomo said. "We'll go from No. 12 to No. 1 because that's where we deserve to be, the No. 1 state in the nation."
Political scientist Doug Muzzio of Baruch College said the speech had a "lot of well-deserved self-shoulder patting," but was light on specifics on how to tackle his new goals.
"If he succeeds with even half of his 'ambitious agenda,' his second semester will be a remarkable success," Muzzio said.
Legislative leaders supported Cuomo, a traditional reaction for the State of the State address while the cameras are on, even in this election year. But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said one of his top priorities will be to raise the minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 an hour for years. Advocates including the Hunger Action Network and members of Occupy Albany favor a raise to at least $10 an hour, which could rile Cuomo's biggest campaign donors in business.
Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos called Cuomo his friend, and noted their successful relationship last year is because many of the Democrat's goals were long-time goals of Republicans.
"Let's make this session even more productive than the last one," Skelos said.
Cuomo didn't mention two of the most controversial issues facing the Legislature: Independent redrawing of election districts that could threaten the Republicans' slim majority in the Senate, and the regulation of "hydrofracking" for natural gas upstate that concerns the Assembly Democrats and environmental groups. Both, however, were part of his written talking points; they briefly mentioned that he still supports independent redistricting and is awaiting thorough review of the gas drilling technology, which uses water laced with chemicals and sand to break through rock formations and extract the gas.
"I'm not surprised, because they are political hot potatoes," said Assembly Republican leader Brian Kolb.
Cuomo's first whirlwind year as governor included landmark legislation, including the legalization of gay marriage, a cap on the growth in property taxes, and a millionaire tax that includes a modest but rare cut in taxes for the middle class. He also made a rare cut in state spending and addressed a $10 billion deficit in a timely budget in the spring, while working closely with the Senate's Republican majority.
For 2012, Cuomo said he will not raise taxes or fees, the same pledge he made in the 2010 campaign and through 11 months of his administration, only to relent in the face of a rising deficit and pressure from Assembly Democrats.
The no-taxes, no-fees pledge was part of Cuomo's overriding economic theme of "jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs." It mirrored in many ways the fiscally conservative, can-do message that Republican George Pataki used in his upset win in 1994 over Mario Cuomo, a party icon at the time who was mired for most of his tenure in a bad economy that fatigued New Yorkers and dimmed their view of the state's future.
"The best is yet to be," Andrew Cuomo exhorted Wednesday. "They ain't seen nothing yet; 2012 is the year we are going to make the Empire State the Empire State again and we are going to make the dreams of this a reality."
Here are some of the key elements from Cuomo's State of the State:
- Gambling. Cuomo is pushing a constitutional amendment to legalize non-Indian casinos and backs a private gambling enterprise's plan to build the world's largest convention center and hotel complex at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens, already the site of a video slot machine "racino."
- Economic development. Cuomo calls for a second round of regional economic development grants and $1 billion in incentives for businesses to help lift Buffalo out of its third-place national poverty ranking behind only Detroit and Cleveland.
- Public employee pensions: Cuomo wants a new, cheaper tier of public pension eligibility to spare state and local governments and their taxpayers from skyrocketing costs.
- Education: Cuomo will create a special commission separate from the Legislature-appointed state Board of Regents to study improving public schools, likely with competitive grants.
- Infrastructure. Cuomo wants to create jobs while rebuilding roads and bridges. "New York Works" would replace 100 bridges, including the Tappan Zee Bridge, and repair 2,000 miles of roads. Parks and flood control infrastructure would also be improved.
- Energy: Cuomo supports a $2 billion private sector plan to transmit power from upstate New York to the metropolitan area while converting old power plants to reduce pollution and bolstering solar energy production through a rebate program.
- Agriculture: Cuomo wants to improve farmers' access to low-interest loans for infrastructure investments and expand the "FreshConnect" farmers' market program to get New York grown food to more residents.
- Campaign finance. Cuomo supports voluntary public financing of political campaigns, with lower amounts for top donations and accountability for how any public money is spent.
- Crime: Cuomo backs legislation to create a databank of DNA taken from criminals convicted of any felony or misdemeanor, not just half the crimes on the books in New York.
- Taxes: Cuomo wants to avoid tax increases this year and proposes a commission to study long-term changes to the state's tax system close loopholes and boost collection enforcement, among other issues.