Gotham Gazette

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Speaking Directly to 'Middle Class Anger,' Cuomo Offers Something for Everyone


Gov. Cuomo delivers his NYC State of the State (photo: Cuomo's office)

Invoking a populist message of economic inclusiveness and social progress that faces dire threats from a changing national reality, Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off his 2017 State of the State tour on Monday morning in New York City.

On the 64th floor of 1 World Trade Center, at the first of six planned events around the state, the governor spoke to a seated assembly of more than 100 people, including state and local elected officials and everyday New Yorkers, relaying an overall message that kept with his recent record but was also engineered as a response to the widespread “middle class anger” evident in the 2016 presidential election.

Titled “Excelsior, Ever Upward” after New York’s state motto, the governor’s State of the State was pegged largely as a stimulus for middle class economic improvement and opportunity, but had something for nearly everyone in the Greater New York City area.

Cuomo pledged a child care tax credit, tuition-free public college for about 80 percent of New York households, more jobs through investment in the private sector and public-private partnership, support for the homeless and funding for affordable housing, all while New York will be vigilant, he said, protecting and promoting the state’s progressive social bonafides. The governor spoke of criminal justice reform and improving access to voting, expanding and improving mass transit, protecting a woman’s right to choose, and defending quality healthcare.

Cuomo likened New York to a hardy ship sailing choppy waters, where economic development has been swift but the middle class feels left behind, where social progress has been significant but people’s rights now feel under attack.

“The ship of state is doing very well and is stronger than it has been in decades,” Cuomo said. “But at the same time, the troubling reality is, the sea upon which our ship of state sails is as rough and tempest-tossed as it has been in over 50 years.”

The state’s progress on women’s rights, climate change, affordable healthcare, and public education is being threatened, the governor said, in a reference to national developments since Donald Trump won the presidential election. Without mentioning President-elect Trump by name, Cuomo emphasized throughout his speech that progressive values and equitable economic growth are not mutually exclusive and that New York would continue to promote the state’s middle class while upholding its secular progressivism.

He also indicated that there was a lot to learn from the results of the election and that New York would show the way. While Cuomo was outlining his 2017 agenda -- much of which will have to be negotiated with the state Legislature -- he also further positioned himself as a national Democratic leader, perhaps with an eye on the 2020 presidential race.

“We all heard the roar on Election Day and we must respond,” he said, insisting that the state must follow two crucial paths -- acknowledging and addressing the issues faced by the middle class and preventing “misdirected anger from doing damage to our country’s core values.” In that vein, Cuomo announced the Middle Class Economic Recovery Act -- a set of proposals aimed at creating jobs and infrastructure, improving access to education, and lowering the tax burden for the middle class.

Some of Cuomo’s proposals outlined Monday were new, some had been announced in the week leading up to his three-day, six-stop State of the State tour. The previously-proposed include a doubling of a child care tax credit that will benefit about 200,000 families and free college tuition at CUNY and SUNY for families making up to $125,000. On Monday, he announced a pilot program with 22,000 slots for afterschool mentoring and tutoring.

These ideas led Cuomo to say, with clear reference to the presidential election, "I believe these measures will help alleviate the middle class anger. Properly focused, the energy generated by that anger, in a positive way, it can become a great force for reform. But misdirected anger can be destructive. It can scapegoat and it can demonize, it can spread fear of those who are different, and it can destroy the uniquely American values and progressive principles that are the foundation of this society."

Cuomo also said the state would invest $650 million in the Life Sciences industry, partnering with industry giant Johnson & Johnson to create a hub in New York City. This investment will create about 25,000 middle class jobs and between $3 billion and $4 billion in economic output for the state, according to the Partnership for New York City.

The governor’s proposals elicited varying degrees of enthusiasm from many who applauded his ideas, some with skepticism around implementation, viability in the Legislature, or funding.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who remains on cold terms with Cuomo, said Cuomo outlined some “promising” ideas, but said he cannot give a full assessment until he sees the governor’s Executive Budget, which is due out by January 17.

At an unrelated press conference later in the day, de Blasio quickly said “No” when Gotham Gazette asked if the budget communication from Cuomo’s office has been to his liking, fitting an annual pattern. Last year, Cuomo surprised the mayor in Albany on the day of his combined State of the State and budget address with proposed cost-shifts to the city.

"Because the speech for the first time was not accompanied by the budget, we don’t know yet the ramifications of everything that was being talked about in the speech,” de Blasio told reporters on Monday, “which is why I’ll express my praise for some of the things I heard but until we see the details, and particularly the budgetary details, we can't pass a final judgement. It was different...than what we heard at the State of the State last year, but we just have to be very sober about the fact that budget documents are really where the rubber hits the road and we gotta see that.”

About Cuomo’s budget, de Blasio said, “I don’t know what it looks like because we haven’t been given anything.”

“It doesn’t shock me,” the mayor added. “You know, at the last moment we will be told what the budget looks like and then we’ll be able to analyze what it means and I’ll be very straightforward with the people of New York City about what it means for all of us. But we haven’t been given any inkling yet.”

On the other hand, Comptroller Scott Stringer, who was also in attendance for the speech, was full of praise for Cuomo. “Today [Governor Cuomo] made a very strong case for a vision for New York State and New York City,” Stringer said after the speech, “that I believe goes a long way to helping the struggling middle class, the poorest people among us.”

As is customary in State of the State speeches, Cuomo spent some of his Monday morning address looking back at accomplishments, touting the socio-economic progress under his leadership, including the passage of marriage equality, paid family leave, a $15 minimum wage program, and common-sense gun control. He also spoke of a second path forward, alongside the Middle Class Economic Recovery Act, that includes protections for the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Termed the “New York Promise Agenda,” the broad-based proposals include criminal justice reform, voting access, women’s rights protections, fighting homelessness, preventing faith-based discrimination, protecting the environment, and improving immigrants rights and access to education. Many of these proposals were obvious responses to the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the records of Trump’s proposed appointees.

Cuomo sought, in his speech, to reassure New Yorkers that the state would do everything in its power to protect against the possible negative consequences of national policies under a Trump administration. For instance, pledging to protect the 2.7 million New Yorkers currently insured under the Affordable Care Act should it be repealed; announcing a public-private partnership to provide legal counsel to immigrants and recommitting to passing the DREAM Act to ensure that immigrants, often the target of President-elect Trump’s ire, have access to education; stressing unqualified support for a woman’s right to choose, which could be threatened if a conservative-leaning Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade; and creating a dedicated hate crimes task force to combat the rise in faith-based discrimination and attacks since the presidential election.

“We will not stop working until the bright light of opportunity shines on all New Yorkers,” Cuomo said, emphasizing also the need for economic equity in the educational system, racial and economic justice in the judicial system and voter empowerment in the electoral system. Some of the items in Cuomo’s Promise Agenda are reliant on the state Legislature, where Republicans who control the Senate have been unsupportive of the Dream Act, codifying Roe v. Wade into state law, raising the age of adult criminal responsibility, and more that Cuomo has proposed.

As Cuomo spoke from New York City, he mentioned the need to restore “trust in government,” but did not address government ethics, despite the facts that his administration has seen a major corruption scandal in the past year and that the state Legislature has continued to see a parade of indictments. According to a Cuomo spokesperson, the governor will outline his ethics agenda during his last State of the State speech, on Wednesday afternoon in Albany.

While many of the governor’s proposals were known before he gave his address, unveiled over the last week in news conferences and press releases, among the new announcements were a number of New York City-specific initiatives, including several aimed at boosting each of the “outer boroughs.”

The governor announced that the city would receive an unprecedented level of funding for education. He also pledged, among other borough-centric proposals, $108 million in state funding for the stalled redevelopment of the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx; $50 million for the Montefiore Health System; $10 million for the redevelopment of the Orchard Beach pavilion, permanently reduced Verrazano Bridge tolls for Staten Island residents; and investments in healthcare, nutrition and healthy food programs in Brooklyn. He also reiterated plans to upgrade JFK Airport in Queens and criticized Rikers Island jail complex, though he stopped short of calling for its closure.

Crucially, the governor’s initial State of the State speech came more than a week before he is due to release his Executive Budget for the next fiscal year, which throws much uncertainty into the mix as to how he proposes to pay for his ambitious proposals and whether the budget will include any surprise announcements. The State of the State, or in this case the six State of the States, set the governor’s policy and spending priorities, and the tone for negotiations with the state Legislature. A fiscal year 2017-2018 budget is due by April 1.

Last year, Cuomo attempted to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in CUNY and Medicaid costs to New York City. The move was beat back by de Blasio and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx. The mayor has repeatedly indicated he is eagerly awaiting budget information from the Cuomo administration and is expecting surprises like last year.

The governor on Monday also called on the state legislative leaders to sign a memorandum of understanding to release more of the $2 billion the parties set aside last year to create 100,000 units of affordable and supportive housing across the state, which would significantly benefit New York City, where de Blasio has been struggling to bring a homelessness crisis under control. Only a small portion of the money was released last year and advocates and providers have been protesting the governor calling on him to come to terms with Heastie and Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan to release the rest so that projects can move.

The governor concluded his speech with a call for unity, recalling how New Yorkers, and Americans, came together in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. “When we are at our best, we don’t focus on disparity, we focus on commonality,” he said. “That’s what this is all about....It’s about pulling people together.”

The governor will have to do just that if he hopes to pass those proposals which will require approval from the Legislature where he currently has no shortage of enemies. The two legislative leaders declined to attend any of the six State of the State events, expressing their displeasure at the governor for interfering in the work of an independent commission that would have given lawmakers pay raises for the first time in years and then leveraging ethics reform to consider a special legislative session in December. The Legislature was also due in session on Monday and Tuesday, making it hardly possible that any state lawmakers could attend the first four of Cuomo’s speeches.

Legislators would need to stay in Albany an extra day to attend Cuomo’s Wednesday speech in the capital area.

Cuomo’s initial speech and his state tour have gotten mixed reviews, sometimes along party lines. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a fellow Democrat and sometimes Cuomo rival who attended the New York City speech, gave initial positive feedback. “It was really more of a reaffirmation of the fundamental New York values that many people feel have been challenged by some of the statements of the president elect and the resumes of some of his nominees,” Schneiderman said. “This is a day for setting forth a vision. The battles over the specifics, the programs, whatever does come out of Washington await another day.”

Outside the World Trade Center, state Republican Party Chair Ed Cox held court with reporters, criticizing the governor as he had promised to do at each State of the State event. “He’s running from the Legislature,” Cox said of Cuomo’s decision to tour the state. “He can’t face criticism.”

Cox did have minor qualified praise for the governor’s presentation. “There’s some good things -- I think tuition relief is good,” he said. “I think the costs are going to be a lot larger than he thinks they are. I think it’s gonna end up as an extension of TAP [Tuition Assistance Program], but the real costs are not tuition...the real costs are for books, room, food. This is gonna be minimal relief, but I’m sure it’s going to be looked at favorably in the Legislature.”

But Cox criticized the governor for convening a speech attended by “groups selected by him, not groups that include the opposition. And that’s the problem.”

On Monday afternoon, Cuomo headed to Buffalo for the second event of his tour. There he announced the 16th plank in his State of the State agenda -- a $500 million expansion of the Buffalo Billion economic development program, which is at the center of the federal corruption charges against Cuomo aides and donors.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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