While outlining an aggressive agenda to boost New York's economy during his second year in office, Gov. Andrew Cuomo advocated several measures to help the poor and dispossessed such as better access to food stamps, new offices to protect tenants' rights and help homeowners avoid foreclosure, establishing a health insurance exchange and improving care for disabled adults.
After a first year widely praised as both fiscally conservative and progressive in breaking years of political gridlock to legalize gay marriage and cut the state deficit, his sophomore address Wednesday contained plans for the nation's largest convention center in New York City and a $1 billion jobs initiative for the long distressed city of Buffalo.
"Our challenge for 2012 is this: How does government spur job creation in a down economy while limiting spending and maintaining fiscal discipline?" Cuomo said. In the nearly hour-long speech to legislators and almost 2,000 others, he called for leveraging state resources to spur private investment. "It all comes down to jobs. ... That's what people need in this state."
He acknowledged that some New Yorkers need more than that.
"We still have, in this state, children who go hungry," Cuomo said, noting that one in six live in homes without enough food. He said 30 percent of New Yorkers eligible for food stamps, about 1.4 million people, don't get them, leaving more than $1 billion in federal funds unclaimed annually, and the state should help remove barriers and stigma and end fingerprinting as a requirement, he said.
The Department of Financial Services will soon include a Foreclosure Relief Unit to provide counseling and mediation, while New York State Homes and Community Renewal will create a Tenant Protection Unit to proactively enforce landlord obligations, Cuomo said. He called for passing legislation to establish a health insurance exchange to help 2.7 million uninsured people, mostly workers and their dependents, get coverage.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who addressed the group earlier, said one of his top priorities will be to raise the minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 an hour for years, or about $15,000 a year for full-time work. The minimum wage in three neighboring states ranges from $8 to $8.47. Silver also proposed eliminating taxes for working families earning less than $25,000.
"In recent years, the ladder to success has fallen into disrepair and our middle class is dwindling," Silver said. The minimum wage is the first rung, he said.
Less than a month after his 54th birthday, Cuomo's second State of the State speech came as he enjoys the same record-high approval ratings that rushed him into office in 2010.
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."
Republican Senate leader Dean Skelos also spoke, calling 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.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said afterward that he strongly supported Cuomo's proposals Wednesday for a new lower pension tier for future public workers, taking DNA samples from all convicted criminals and cutting unfunded municipal mandates, and he agreed New York City needs a bigger convention center. "Aqueduct would probably make a decent location," he said, noting it has the advantage of available land.
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 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.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.