Analysis: Governor Cuomo’s 2012 State of the State

State Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, sounded a confident and enthusiastic note in his 2012 State of the State Address. He praised leaders in the Assembly and Senate and credited them with fundamentally changing the way government in New York State functions. Speaker Sheldon and Majority Leader Dean Skelos also praised the Governor for working on an ambitious agenda and for 2011’s many accomplishments.

Cuomo began his State of the State by talking about the Capitol itself, which no doubt is familiar to him from the time when he was an aid to his father’s office as a young man. His description characterized the building as deteriorated. Much work has been done since and no doubt that the State Capitol’s renovations make it incredibly impressive now. Cuomo then drew on the renovation of the Capitol as a metaphor for the broader state at large.

Among specific proposals in Cuomo’s speech, were 25 billion dollars in spending projects, including investments in Convention Centers (which drew a rather tepid applause); sorely need capital investments in the city of Buffalo; and investments in bridges and infrastructure –most notably including replacing the Tappen Zee Bridge. Cuomo also stated a need for investments in education, specifically in SUNY and community colleges in New York State. Lastly, saying “we already have legal gambling in New York State” (on Indian reservations), he cited allowing gambling in New York State as a way to raise revenue and increase tourism.

To appeal across the isles, Cuomo suggested tax-reform. Sorely needed revenue could be created by closing tax loophole. Further, Cuomo pledged to not raise revenue by raising taxes and fees. Cuomo also rather vaguely suggested the ambitious projects agenda he is pushing might be funded from tax reform and extracted from future public employees by altering the pension system with another public employee’s tier. Cuomo’s strong-arm tactics towards public employee’s unions, which caused so much consternation throughout the past year, seems to be a tact he continues to pursue. Cuomo championed a system of teacher evaluation, but did not explain how this was going to bring down the extraordinary cost-per-student in school in New York State. Cuomo did cite that New York State leads the nation on spending for a dismal 38th in the country outcome. Cuomo suggested those numbers needed to be “flipped.” Short on other specifics, Cuomo stated education would be a top priority in the coming year.

Cuomo repeatedly enjoined with a mantra of “jobs, jobs, jobs” but made only passing mention to the hardships currently facing New Yorkers. Even though, since the recession, poverty has deepened drastically for many New Yorkers. Cuomo did cite the need to remove a barrier to enrolling New Yorkers in Food Stamps. He suggested the fingerprint requirement be removed, so that “no New York children go to bed hungry.”

Cuomo closed his State of the State by again praising members of the Legislature both parties for working with him and restoring the “credibility” of New York’s government. He praised the long history of New York’s leading the nation and cited the very important Marriage Equality Bill as an example. By its end, the speech was enthusiastic, optimistic and passionate. However, one might wonder if Cuomo is not seeing the state through what my mother called “rose-colored lenses.”

Cuomo’s achievements in office, thus far, are notable. He is governing riding a wave of high approval ratings. Still, one does wonder if the Legislature and Cuomo patting themselves on the back as much is premature. Not all of the governor’s proposals were greeted so enthusiastically as perhaps he might have liked, and many of Cuomo’s statements made him seem woefully out of touch.

The most notable example in Cuomo’s State of the State of where the speech veered rather wildly from reality, was when he was making the case for capital investment in Buffalo. The governor cited the city of Albany as an example of how private investment could revitalize a city. The Nano-tech campus as his example hit a very sour note. As with much of the recent development in and around Albany, the Nano-tech campus was a massive missed opportunity. It has probably benefitted outlying communities more than the city itself. It has brought high-paying jobs, bolstered the area’s image as a technology innovator, and created meaningful partnerships with institutions of higher education. Still, it was a massive bungle. The site that was chosen did not return a vacant or underutilized space in the city center to the tax-roles. The campus was built far from the city center. Property taxes are a perennial issue, and the city minimized potential benefits by keeping a property off the tax-rolls. If the campus had remained in the city center there would have been a clear benefit to ancillary businesses and those “jobs, jobs, jobs” Mr. Cuomo had mentioned. To a lesser extent, Albany repeated this failure again this year and announced the opening of a Shop-Rite supermarket on Central Avenue, near where two other supermarkets already compete with each other. Albany residents living downtown still must travel to the city’s outskirts to shop in the South End, Arbor Hill, and North Albany. The example of the Nano-tech Campus really outlines all the ways in which Albany has been “revitalizing” in all the wrong ways. It’s also a good illustration of why some of the communities that are hardest hit within the city are in the sorry state they are.

The other point in his speech that Cuomo again seemed out of touch, was after praising SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. He characterized SUNY as “doing very well.” I would think students that staged a statewide walkout over department and faculty cuts, and tuition hikes of 30% in 5 years, may beg to differ. Cuomo may need to reconsider whether the SUNY system has indeed been treated as though it is a “precious New York State asset.”

Another important issue got very dismissive treatment in Cuomo’s remarks: “fracking,” or hydraulic-fracturing. Cuomo hardly brought it up. The issue is was very much on the minds of a large contingent of New Yorkers that were on the concourse while the governor was speaking. The issue remains contentious and grassroots organizations, many municipalities, as well as the City Council of Albany have expressed concerns about allowing hydraulic fracturing in New York State. The ringing oratory of Cuomo’s assertion that New York is leading the nation sounds hollow when someone expected to lead simply defers to the results of the DEC impact study. Especially when there is such broad-based opposition and so many pressing concerns about the practice. That’s hardly being a progressive leader.

In the end, I do not doubt that as this news cycle wears on that Cuomo will likely find his speech to be well-received. Cuomo and the Legislature have a record to stand on. They have changed the perceptions of many about the direction of NY government. Still, the goodwill that dominates the Capitol and the Egg today is no more assured than the agenda that Cuomo has laid out in the coming year. Cuomo’s optimism is obvious. Also obvious, however, is that Cuomo has also shown himself to be out of the loop on some of the biggest concerns of New Yorkers.

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