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Cuomo Continues Rollout of 2015 Agenda, Still Much to Say as Major Speech Looms

Cuomo January 2015

Gov. Cuomo unveiling more of his 2015 agenda (photo: Governor's Office, via flickr)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced he wants to raise New York City's minimum wage to $11.50 and the state's to $10.50 on Sunday during the latest in a series of his "2015 New York State of Opportunity Agenda" presentations. The minimum wage proposal is one of Cuomo's new "Ten Point Plan to Combat Poverty and Fight Inequality."

Cuomo has held events several days in a row to put forth major policy initiatives that will be a part of his combined State of the State Address and budget presentation to be given on Wednesday, Jan. 21, in Albany.

On Sunday, Cuomo employed the term "economic inequality," which until recently has been almost completely absent from his public vocabulary, but picks up on a theme of Mayor Bill de Blasio's and of many advocates and politicians. Cuomo went on to say that the minimum wage deal reached in 2013 wasn't enough. "We raised the minimum wage last year and we're now in the midst of a minimum wage phase-in schedule, and I'm proud that we raised the minimum wage," Cuomo said. "But the wage gap is continuing to grow." Cuomo's new wage increase needs legislative approval, which could be challenging given the Republican-controlled State Senate.

Cuomo and the Legislature reached a deal in 2013 that lifted the minimum wage to $8.75 at the end of 2014 and will increase the wage to $9 in December of this year. But advocates and many New York City-based legislators have insisted that even $9 is not enough to keep families above the poverty line. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed the State to allow municipalities to set their own minimum wages, especially New York City, where the cost of living is much higher than the rest of the state.

This summer, Cuomo has announced support for raising the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a number President Obama called for nationally, and allowing localities to set the wage 30 percent higher than the state's minimum.

Contacted last week about the governor's probable wage proposal, advocates insisted the wage should be raised to $15 across the state.

"It would be great if Governor Cuomo recognizes that low wages are holding our economy back," said Michael Kink of Strong Economy For All. "He should make New York a leader nationally with a $15 minimum wage. The facts on the ground show that the states with the highest minimum wages have the best economies in the nation." Kink also wants Cuomo to index the wage to inflation.

Karen Scharff of Citizen Action reiterated Kink's call for a $15 minimum wage with indexing. The Working Families Party, which endorsed Cuomo in last year's election after a contentious process, only to feud with him publically later, issued a Sunday statement praising the proposal a a first step but pushing for a $15 minimum wage.

Progressive reboot?
Advocates and legislators are waiting anxiously to see if Gov. Andrew Cuomo's second term includes a more progressive reboot. A push for another minimum wage adjustment with some local indexing provides some hope in this regard. After a rough election year where he was beaten up in the Democratic Primary by union members and progressive groups angry at his more conservative economic policies, some insiders say Cuomo is looking to move more toward the left on both social and economic issues. And yet so far the governor has revealed fiscal plans that irk liberals. Those plans include what has been labeled by some advocates as a "Hunger Games" style competition between upstate localities for up to $500 million in state grants, three of which are available for seven regions to compete for. And, Cuomo's promising to hold budget spending to a 2 percent cap.

In his first term Cuomo used his State of the State Addresses to build what observers call his version of "a new Democrat," or his version of being (Bill) Clintonian - rolling out fairly moderate-to-conservative fiscal proposals, including some that targeted Western and Upstate New York for growth, and liberal social policies like marriage equality and gun control. But Cuomo failed to go all-in on other major progressive issues like public financing of elections, The DREAM Act, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, and proposals for larger minimum wage increases.

"Four years ago Cuomo unveiled his version of the brand-new Democrat - his version of Bill Clinton. But he was really hurt in this past election by public workers, teachers, and anti-frackers. That anger really hurt him. Now is the chance for him to strike out with his own liberal agenda," said Mark Dunlea of Hunger Action which hosts The Peoples' State of the State each year to focus on progressive issues.

This year's State of the State will be different from any given before as Cuomo delayed the originally-scheduled speech because of his father's death. And so he's doing a significant preview of his 2015 New York State of Opportunity Agenda.

"The fact that they have used the word "opportunity" as the organizing principle around this thing is nice," said Kink before saying that it would have to be backed up by actions that helped the poor as well as the rich to have any meaning.

Some advocates have put a lot of stock into what they heard in Cuomo's inauguration address where he noted the State has recovered from a $10 billion budget gap and now enjoys a $5 billion surplus. What was most compelling to many progressive advocates was this bit of Cuomo's speech: "Americans are rightly disheartened and disappointed by the economic climate and rightly so. We are told the recession is over, we read reports that say the economic numbers are going up and up but we work harder and we earn less. Income inequality is at the highest in over a century."

[Related: Four Cuomo State of the States: Hits, Misses & Themes]

Cuomo has made a number of announcements across the state during this week prior to his major speech, highlighting key policy proposals for 2015. Earlier Sunday Cuomo unveiled a series of tax cuts for small businesses.

On Saturday at New York University Cuomo unveiled a proposal to codify campus sexual assault rules already in place at schools in the SUNY system. Those rules employ an affirmative consent requirement to any sexual encounter on higher education campuses across the state, a sexual assault victims bill of rights, and more.

Cuomo has also released a student loan forgiveness program that would pay the difference between a New York resident's student loan bill and what is covered by the federal Pay as You Earn program as long as the student earns less than $50,000 a year. Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group praised the proposal, saying Cuomo "deserves a gold star."

Other recently-debuted proposals include a property tax subsidy for middle-income renters and homeowners; a plan to expand broadband access across rural areas of the state; and the contest where upstate localities can compete to win up to $500 million of a $1.5 billion pot of state economic stimulus funds. The plan has faced backlash in some quarters because Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" program gave $1 billion to Buffalo development without the city having to compete against others. Noting that four of the seven regions able to compete for the monies will likely go without, some have dubbed it "The Hunger Games." James Parrott of The Fiscal Policy Institute said he thinks the metaphor is appropriate. "To force upstate regions to compete is pretty cynical. Are we saying some areas are not worthy of assistance if they can't manage the sharpest elbows in the competition? It doesn't recognize the disparity of need in some of these regions."

Key issues not yet addressed
Leading up to and on Wednesday in Albany Cuomo is expected to make major proposals on a slew of other issues.

The governor is expected to move on criminal justice reforms in the wake of the death of Eric Garner and a Staten Island grand jury's decision not to indict the officer who put him in a fatal chokehold. "The truth is the justice system does need review," Cuomo said in his inaugural address. "The truth is there are troubling questions that have been raised that must be answered. The truth is police officers need do more safety and need more protection. The truth is law enforcement needs the respect of the community as much as the community needs to respect law enforcement."

Considering he has called for a full review of the system, it is unclear how many specific recommendations Cuomo might make on criminal justice. It looks like he will at least start with calling for more transparency in the grand jury system.

Senate Republicans are scheduled to hold hearings on police safety and criminal justice issues across the state the week after Cuomo's address. Republican Sen. Martin Golden of Brooklyn, a former police officer himself, told Gotham Gazette he expects Cuomo to strike a balance between police safety and community concerns. He said he expects the Senate hearings to take a similar tone. "We will be looking at getting bulletproof vests and glass for the officers, things they need to do their jobs safer, and of course criminal justice reform."

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Senate Democrats have pushed for special prosecutors to look into police shootings of unarmed citizens, but many Republicans oppose the idea because they say it will undermine locals District Attorneys. Other proposals would make the grand jury process more transparent so that the public would understand why an officer is or is not indicted. Cuomo said on Wednesday that while he was looking at reforms to grand jury secrecy he had yet to settle on any particular proposals.

Expect strong words from the governor on passage of his Women's Equality Agenda. Cuomo himself created an entire political party to back the ten-point proposal that has been the source of bickering and stalemate between the Democratically-controlled Assembly and Republican-controlled Senate because of the plank that would codify Roe v. Wade in state law. The Senate moved swiftly this year to neutralize the issue by passing eight of the planks in the second week of session. Senate Republicans are pressuring the Assembly to vote on the eight measures they passed. It is unclear how Cuomo will navigate the impasse.

A number of New York City legislators are hopeful Cuomo will make good on a campaign promise and help pass The DREAM Act to provide tuition assistance to undocumented immigrants who meet existing guidelines. "He needs to make good and put the DREAM Act in the budget," said Sen. Jose Serrano of the governor. "He has a great opportunity to lead on a progressive agenda. He has it in his DNA. His father raised him with that. He grew up with that great liberal lion."

Perhaps the most divisive part of Cuomo's address will be his education agenda. Thus far, the only preview of his education agenda that Cuomo has given is a lengthy letter that he had a commissioner send to outgoing State Education Commissioner John King and Board of Regents head Meryl Tisch. Cuomo has made a significant number of public comments (and past actions) that indicate he will look to bolster charter schools and implement tougher evaluations for public school teachers. Last month Cuomo vetoed his own teacher evaluation bill saying that it didn't actually "fix the foundational issues with the teacher evaluation system."

Teachers unions took it as retribution for the fact that they refused to back him during the 2014 election cycle. In October, Cuomo promised to "break" what he called the public education "monopoly."

"It would be nice to hear him say something positive about the people who are teaching our children," said Assembly Member Deborah Glick, who chairs the Higher Education Committee. "If we want kids to respect their teachers then officials need to display some as well and acknowledge it is a difficult job." Cuomo has repeatedly said he is not anti-teacher, but that the state education system is not working well enough and reforms are needed, whether backed by the unions or not.

[Related: Four Cuomo State of the States: Hits, Misses & Themes]

New York City waits
Meanwhile a number of issues important to New York City will be before the Legislature this year - rent laws and mayoral control of schools are each set to expire and while most legislators say they expect to renew both, major battles will be fought over the details of each.

Mayor Bill de Blasio finds himself in a precarious position since his bid to remove Senate Republicans from power failed spectacularly. He will need Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and possibly Cuomo's help to get what he wants, or anything near it.

"There is a basic institutional conflict at play," said Doug Muzzio, professor emeritus of political science at Baruch College, of the city-state tug of war. "On top of that there is this real soap opera with a guy who worked for the other guy [as de Blasio did for Cuomo]. Cuomo ravaged de Blasio over universal pre-kindergarten and then de Blasio saves his ass at the Working Families Party meeting."

Muzzio says that once again de Blasio is at Cuomo's mercy despite being helpful to the governor several times over the past year. "There is a triangle as far as negotiations in Albany" with Republican Senate Leader Dean Skelos, Assembly Speaker Silver, and Cuomo, "but Cuomo is at the top of the triangle. So does he give Republicans something to soothe their anger with de Blasio or not? You can't put the toothpaste back in tube. [De Blasio] sent the staffers up there and spent the money to beat [Senate Republicans]. He is at the governor's mercy now."

Sen. Golden agreed that de Blasio faces stiff opposition from his conference in Albany. "He's gonna have a rough time. But it's my job as a Senator from the city, and all the others', to make sure there is balance in what the city gets."

by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette

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