Gov. Cuomo outlines his agenda (photo: governor's office)
Governor Andrew Cuomo made a triumphant appearance at a Manhattan luncheon hosted by the Association for a Better New York on Thursday, celebrating a raft of accomplishments achieved in partnership with the Democrat-controlled state Legislature over the last three months and in the recently approved state budget.
“Understanding the forces that we were dealing with, we laid out a very robust agenda last December,” he said, referring to a large budget gap that he blamed on federal policies hostile to New York, “a 100-day agenda that took the bull by the horns and addressed the issues and we said we would get it done in 100 days. We got it done and I again want to applaud the Legislature for making some of the toughest, most meaningful reforms that this state has ever made.”
But did they ‘get it done’? Was Cuomo’s entire “first 100 days” agenda for the first year of his third term -- and the first legislative session of his gubernatorial tenure with Democrats in control of both houses of the Legislature -- accomplished? Not quite. Just a few days earlier, with a budget deal reached and bills being voted through by the Assembly and Senate, Cuomo held a press conference in Albany and used slightly more nuanced language about the degree to which he had moved that ambitious agenda, though even then he exaggerated.
In December, five weeks after Cuomo was comfortably reelected for a third term, he released a list of priorities that he said that he would focus on in the first 100 days of 2019. It was an agenda dealing with taxes, affordability, reproductive rights, gender equality, gun control, immigrant rights, environmental protections, good government policies, criminal justice reform, and more. Many aspects were long-held progressive priorities blocked by Republicans who had controlled the state Senate for Cuomo’s first two terms. Some items mentioned specific legislation while others included only broader goals.
The new Democratic dominance in Albany appeared to make virtually any progressive goal possible, depending in large part on the governor’s willingness to continue his move leftward, but also how much agreement on the particulars was achievable among a wide array of legislators from throughout the state, even if they espoused similar values.
Though there has been infighting and hand-wringing, and perhaps more moderate compromise than some Democratic activists and officials expected, it has been a successful and uncharacteristically productive legislative session, both before and during the budget, for Democrats so far this year in Albany, and as Cuomo’s 100th day hits on Wednesday, he’ll have checked most of the boxes in his 20-point agenda, though he is mischaracterizing the extent to which they’ve been successful given several bigger issues remain unresolved.
Cuomo began his victory lap on the 100 days agenda before the ink on the 2020 state budget was even dry. “[W]e we got every element accomplished, virtually,” he said at a March 31 news conference, announcing the budget agreement reached with the state Legislature, members of which were debating and voting through budget bills all the way through the morning of April 1.
“We have not legalized cannabis, adult use cannabis. The political desire is there, I believe we will get it done,” he said, acknowledging perhaps the biggest policy goal he had set that was not achieved in the first 100 days of his term -- though there are several others.
It was undoubtedly a productive three months. Several major voting and campaign finance reforms were approved early on, followed by protections for the LGBTQ community, women’s reproductive rights legislation, new gun control laws, and broad criminal justice reforms.
A closer look at what parts of his agenda Cuomo did and did not get done in his first 100 days of term three, including through the budget:
“Ensure a Progressive Tax System”
Cuomo pledged to protect New Yorkers from the effects of the recent federal tax code overhaul, which gave large tax cuts to the wealthy and to corporations but spelled serious complications for New York and other high-tax states (and is the subject of litigation brought by New York and others).
Following through on the promise of a “progressive tax system,” the state budget agreement included a five-year extension of the state’s millionaire’s tax though not an expansion of it as the state Assembly majority had sought. Cuomo was also successful in making the state’s 2% cap on annual property tax increases (outside New York City) permanent even though it was not due to expire until next year.
Though it wasn’t part of Cuomo’s agenda, the governor and the Legislature also wound up passing a “mansion tax” that adds a surcharge on sales of homes valued over $2 million in New York City, the revenue for which will go toward the MTA.
“Cut Middle Class Taxes while Fighting to repeal SALT”
The governor has been particularly critical of the Trump tax cuts for reducing the State and Local Tax (SALT) deduction to $10,000, which disproportionately hurt high-tax, Democrat-heavy states like New York, Connecticut, and California. He’s promised to tour the country to rally against the policy and has attempted to create workarounds in state law to help New Yorkers reduce their tax burden, though those have failed. Litigation is ongoing, however.
After the new state budget was approved, Cuomo took credit for not only pushing the property tax cap but also for continuing the phase-in of a middle-class tax cut that was previously approved (though Cuomo has presented it as a new cut).
“We lowered the middle-class tax rates again up to $300,000 which is an expansive view of the middle class,” he said. “We said that we had to combat SALT. I am doing everything I can to combat SALT. I've met with the President, I'm working on organizing governors across the country. We came up with a number of alternatives to SALT through the tax code which the federal government rejected. I've been speaking with Speaker Pelosi and I will continue this fight, which I believe is the most important fight for the state of New York until we get it done.”
Prospects for the repeal of the SALT cap are grim, at least while Republicans control the presidency and Senate.
“Protect Quality, Affordable Health Care”
The state Legislature and governor took several actions over the last few months to, they say, strengthen the state’s health care system, as Trump and some Republicans in Congress have continued to threaten to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“New York State has significant legal power because we regulate the insurance industry. And we have codified many of the protections of Obamacare, so regardless of what President Trump does, we know that we have a healthcare program in New York that will protect New Yorkers,” Cuomo said on March 31. As he noted, the budget agreement put ACA protections, including the state insurance marketplace and coverage of pre-existing conditions, into state law.
The agreement also included $550 million in increased Medicaid funding, which Cuomo had earlier proposed cutting back as the state faced a $2.3 billion revenue shortfall.
“Codify Reproductive Rights”
Among the bills that the Democratic Legislature quickly advanced in the first month of the legislative session were protections of women’s reproductive rights, which Republicans had blocked for years. For Democrats, passing those laws was particularly pressing after the balance of the Supreme Court tilted in favor of conservatives with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh last year.
On January 23, the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which grants the federal right to abortion, the state Legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act, which codified Roe abortion protections into state law, and the Comprehensive Contraception Care Act, which requires health care insurers to cover the cost of contraception.
The Legislature also approved the “boss bill,” which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on reproductive health decisions. Cuomo quickly signed all three into law.
“Combat Gun Violence”
Strengthening the state’s gun laws has been a signature issue for Cuomo, who worked with Democrats and Republicans to enact an assault rifle ban and other regulations shortly after the Sandy Hook mass shooting of 2012. In January, the state Legislature passed and the governor signed several more gun control measures including banning bump stocks, extending the background check waiting period for buying a gun from three days to ten days, and the Red Flag Law, which allows a judge to order the seizure of firearms from individuals (and their households) deemed a threat to public safety and prohibits those individuals from purchasing a weapon.
“Launch a $150 Billion Infrastructure Plan”
Cuomo expanded the state’s massive infrastructure program with several new investments in the 2020 fiscal year budget. The $150 billion capital investment program is expected to create 675,000 jobs over the next five years, Cuomo has said, by renovating and building new airports, bus and train stations, highways, tunnels, bridges, housing, and other facilities across the state.
At the ABNY speech, Cuomo called it the “the largest building program in the United States of America.” He showed a powerpoint slide with a long list of projects that will either be completed or started during his third term, and added, “We get this done, we will have transformed New York. Think about all those projects and think about how comprehensive they are. New airports, new rail, new bridges, new power systems. It will be a new New York.”
“Fund and Restructure the MTA While Easing Traffic in New York City's Business District”
After years of being rejected by both Democrats and Republicans, congestion pricing was embraced this year by the state Legislature and Cuomo as a way to create a sustainable revenue source for the MTA and to cut down on Manhattan gridlock. The details of the plan have yet to be worked out, however, and it will only go into effect after December 2020, but the program is expected to raise as much as a $1 billion annually, which the MTA will be able to leverage to raise another $10 billion by issuing bonds, for an expected total of $15 over five years.
Additionally, Cuomo and the Legislature decided to dedicate taxes from the new “mansion tax” as well as portions of expected proceeds to New York City and State from an expansion of the internet sales tax. There will still be some portion of the coming MTA capital plan for 2020-2024 that must be covered, and the MTA’s annual operating budget is in a tenuous position.
Although Cuomo had also promised to reform the MTA’s management structure (mostly to give him greater control even though he already effectively controls its every move) there were few immediate changes to the agency included in the budget. There are prospective ones, though: MTA has been mandated to issue a reorganization plan by June, will be required to undergo an “independent forensic audit and efficiency review,” will have to implement a 20-year capital needs assessment starting in 2023 and publicly report metrics on performance, among other reforms.
“Ensure Education Equity”
The final budget agreement included about $27.9 billion in education funding, marking a $1 billion increase in aid to school districts, far lower than what the state Board of Regents and some legislators had advocated for. It was slightly more than Cuomo had proposed himself, but given the state’s fiscal picture Cuomo appeared set against a larger increase, arguing that the state is already providing excessive education aid to localities and that the real need is more funding to the poorest schools.
Cuomo put forward a new “Education Equity” formula through which he said 70% of new aid would go to poorer schools, not just districts. “This says in the budget poor schools must be prioritized from a funding point of view by the district. And they must publish the numbers of how much they have funded the schools within their district,” Cuomo said of the deal that was reached, which fell short of what he had outlined initially but appears may help further the goals he laid out.
“Pass the Dream Act”
The DREAM Act is meant to provide tuition assistance to “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and it was passed by the state Assembly and Senate in January. The bill has yet to be sent to the governor for his signature, even though he has said he will sign it, because of concerns about the broad language included in it, according to the Albany Times Union, but the state budget provides $27 million in funding to implement it.
“Ensure Clean, Safe Drinking Water for All”
The state budget added $500 million in additional funding for clean water infrastructure, bringing the state’s total investment to $3 billion.
“Improve Our Democracy”
The state Legislature passed several voting and elections reforms this year that are meant to improve voter turnout, including approving ten days of early voting (which was funded at $10 million in the budget), consolidating the state and federal primary elections in June, allowing pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds, universal transfer of voting registration, and beginning the process of amending the state constitution to allow no-excuse absentee ballots by mail and same day voter registration.
Cuomo had also pushed for automatic voter registration and making Election Day a state holiday but was unsuccessful. The budget agreement did however provide three hours (up from two) of paid leave on election day to allow people to vote, expanded voting hours in upstate New York, and also included $14 million in funding for electronic pollbooks, which were approved by the Legislature and are said to be essential to carrying out early voting.
“Protect Public Sector Unions”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. ACFME, which overruled compulsory union fees for non-union workers on First Amendment grounds, Cuomo promised to protect New York’s labor unions from its adverse effects. The state budget extended Janus protections approved by the state -- including protecting personal contact information of public employees from being disclosed -- to all local governments.
“Pass the Child Victims Act”
After more than 15 years of repeated failure, the Legislature finally passed with near unanimous support and Cuomo signed the Child Victims Act, which extends the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse and gives victims the ability to seek justice as adults, while also including a one-year “look back window” that briefly suspends the statute of limitations.
“Protect LGBTQ Rights”
The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) was another bill stonewalled by Republicans for years that Democrats approved this year. The bill prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and was a top priority for LGBTQ activists. The state Legislature also banned the controversial and discredited practice of “conversion therapy” for minors.
“Ensure Fairness in the Criminal Justice System”
In budget negotiations, Cuomo repeatedly said he would not sign a budget that did not include several key criminal justice reforms including ending cash bail, and enacting speedy trial and open discovery reform. The final agreement did not completely do away with cash bail but did significantly curtail it, while implementing the other reforms as well.
There are parts of the 100 days agenda that haven’t been accomplished yet and are expected to be on the docket over the next three months as the legislative session continues.
More on what Cuomo did not get done:
“Legalize Adult Use of Recreational Marijuana”
Cuomo’s embrace of recreational marijuana legalization, which could raise an estimated $300 million in revenue annually, was unsuccessful as the state Legislature could not come to an agreement with him over how to implement it and how much of the revenue raised should go to mass transit (as Cuomo intended) or to communities hurt by marijuana enforcement.
”It is complicated to come up with a program that does it and protects public safety, and does economic empowerment for communities that have paid the price,” Cuomo said. “And the best way to do it was not in the race of the budget. And that is nothing new, we've been talking about it for weeks. But that's the one item on the list that we did not get to yet.”
“Keep Housing Affordable for New Yorkers”
Cuomo has touted a $20 billion affordable housing plan though it’s hard to gauge its results. But the more pressing issue for Democrats this year is the effort to reform rent regulation laws that expire in July. Cuomo has supported ending vacancy decontrol, eliminating preferential rent rules, and also modifying rent increases from Major Capital Improvements (MCI). Faced with a somewhat diminished but nonetheless powerful real estate lobby, rent regulations will likely be a controversial subject for the Legislature and governor. Cuomo included reforming rent regulations in his 100 days agenda, but neither he nor the Legislature ever appeared set on dealing with them before the budget -- the regulations expire in June, and always appeared as if they would be one of, if not the most controversial issues in the post-budget session.
“Enshrine Gender Equality into Law”
Cuomo promised to push for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would prohibit discrimination based on sex. Placing it in the state constitution would require the current Legislature to pass a resolution, which would then have to be passed by the next Legislature seated in 2021 and subsequently approved by voters. Though the amendment has passed in the Assembly previously, and State Senator Julia Salazar has introduced a resolution in the Senate, it has not moved through the Legislature.
“Increase Trust in the Democratic System”
The governor pledged to end the so-called LLC loophole in state campaign finance law, which allows limited liability companies to make donations without disclosing their donors. Though the state Legislature did significantly curb LLC donations, limiting them to a maximum of $5,000, and added new disclosure requirements, the loophole remains open to an extent. Cuomo has dubiously claimed otherwise.
Cuomo also pushed to ban corporate contributions, which did not pass. He also advocated for ending outside income for lawmakers, which was not done directly by the Legislature but was effectively accomplished by a state commission that recommended pay increases for legislators while restricting outside income (those outcomes are the subject of litigation).
On creating a system of public financing of elections, the Legislature and governor passed a broad agreement to move ahead but punted, charging a commission to come up with a program by December with no specific mandates for how a public financing system would be structured. Advocates have called for a system modelled on the one currently in place in New York City.
“Launch the Green New Deal”
Cuomo has also claimed to have launched a Green New Deal for New York but even his version that was included in his executive budget proposal, which falls far short of what advocates and some state legislators have pushed for, was not accomplished in the budget.
Cuomo’s bill would have set the state’s energy sector on a path to becoming carbon neutral by 2040, while environmental activists are pursuing the Climate and Community Protection Act, which mandates that the entire state economy be carbon neutral by 2050. Cuomo did celebrate certain environmental and clean energy investments as well as a “ban” (with carve-outs) on single-use plastic bags, a major victory for supporters of the measure to help reduce New York’s plastic bag use and waste.
Note: this article has been corrected to note that Cuomo's 100th day of his new term is Wednesday April 10, not Monday as originally stated.