By GREGORY ZELLER //
Online sports betting, legalized marijuana and a “fight” against the federal government for overdue COVID-19 compensation – against what figures to be a relatively friendly Congress – highlight Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plans for 2021.
In a typically shoot-for-the-moon State of the State address delivered Monday, the governor outlined an annual agenda overflowing with healthcare initiatives – including comprehensive telehealth legislation, the creation of the nation’s first “public health corps” and fair vaccination distributions – and ripe with social reform: New statewide childcare options, community policing upgrades and a fresh focus on gender-based violence all factor in.
Less a line-by-line budget proposal than a liberal-reformist wish list, the left-of-center strategy is, naturally, generating vocal critics: Outnumbered Republicans in the New York State Senate are banging their war drums, while some have labeled the weed-legalization and online-betting proposals as blatant cash grabs by a free-spending administration starved for tax revenues.
But for Cuomo and his supporters, the takeaway from the governor’s 11th annual State of the State address – subtitled “Reimagine, Rebuild, Renew” and so bold it’s actually being delivered in stages, all week long – is a full-out effort to win the COVID-19 war, followed by a full-scale economic revival.
Speaking in his Albany War Room to a small in-person group and larger television audience, the governor lamented “the voices of doubt and defeat,” noting they have repeatedly downplayed his administration’s ability to enact social and governmental reforms.
“The state can’t do a budget on time,” Cuomo said. “We can’t enact common sense gun safety, we can’t pass marriage equality, we can’t raise the minimum wage, we can’t fix subway tunnels, we can’t build a new Tappan Zee Bridge, we can’t turn around the Buffalo economy, we can’t end the AIDS epidemic, we can’t provide free college tuition for the middle class, we can’t construct a new Penn (Station) train hall.
“But they were wrong,” he added. “We did.”
And now, New York will lead again, starting with healthcare. The governor trumpeted a new Medical Supplies Act designed to promote the domestic manufacturing of critical healthcare equipment by prioritizing government purchases of American-made PPE; he also called for comprehensive telehealth reform designed to remove existing roadblocks and help New Yorkers gain telemedicine’s full benefits.
Cuomo also promised the creation of the New York State Public Health Corps, which will enlist medical students, retired medical professionals and laypeople for an intensive training curriculum designed by New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health, Cornell University and a host of partners – essentially, creating a trained pandemic-response team ready for the next health crisis.
Noting a $15 billion state budget gap “created entirely by the pandemic,” Cuomo said he also plans to confront the federal government on its financial responsibilities to the state – including the ill-fated decision to close travel from China during the early stages of COVID-19, while allowing infected passengers from Europe to travel to New York and other domestic destinations.
That confrontation should go more smoothly with the U.S. Senate flipped blue and President Biden in charge. But the cost of Cuomo’s pie-in-the-sky designs cannot be ignored – and the governor isn’t ignoring them, nor the tax-revenue potential in some of his plans.
Specifically noting the possibility of $300 million in annual tax revenues, Cuomo is proposing the creation of a new Office of Cannabis Management to oversee a new adult-use cannabis program – essentially, removing the last legal roadblocks to adult marijuana possession and use – as well as the state’s existing medical and cannabinoid hemp programs.
And citing studies that suggest 20 percent of New Jersey’s sports-wagering revenue comes from New Yorkers, Cuomo is ordering the New York State Gaming Commission to request proposals from mobile sports-wagering providers.
Also on Cuomo’s list is enforcement of the New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative. Created in June by executive order, the collaborative requires all statewide governments and police forces to modernize their policing strategies and strengthen their community relationships – with ratified plans for how to do so on the governor’s desk by April 1.
A rapid COVID-19 detection network (designed specifically to help businesses reopen), new tax credits for childcare investments, a reimagined Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence (formerly the Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence) and a slate of personal financial benefits – including rent and healthcare-premium relief for New Yorkers strapped by the coronavirus – also make Cuomo’s cut.
His latest State of the State address is arguably his most ambitious, but the governor counted COVID-19 among “the episodes in history that transform society” – and said New York’s response must be just as transformative.
“We see the risk and peril, but we also see the promise and potential of this moment,” he noted. “This next year, we will see economies realign and reset around the world, and New York will lead the way.
“In a moment when nagging insecurity can either limit your potential or give way to the energy of urgency, necessity and innovation, we know the direction we are headed,” Cuomo added. “It is our state motto, ‘Excelsior.’