As governors move through their tenure, the focus of their State of the State addresses change. In the first few years, governors shape their addresses as part of a reform package. As they are in office, and if they get re-elected, that tone changes. More and more of the State of the State reflects the achievements of the Administration; after all, they are now the status quo and “reforms” imply failures.
Governor Cuomo delivered his eighth State of the State address last week. As he gears up for his apparent re-election campaign, his address took a traditional approach – it focused on his achievements. In his speech, which ran over an hour and a half, he unveiled his full policy agenda for the 2018 legislative session.
The address was organized around three themes – or as the governor called it a “three front war” – (1) discrimination and sexism, (2) challenges to the state’s health and safety, and (3) economic challenges that stem from actions in Washington. Of the 90-plus minute speech, these three sections were covered in about an hour.
But they were not equally discussed – at least in terms of time. The governor spent roughly 15-20 minutes on the first two themes and 30 on the threats emanating from the Trump Administration and the Congress.
Clearly, the governor was presenting himself as an opponent of the actions taken by Washington, in particular the President. In a “blue” state like New York, a state in which the President is immensely unpopular, positioning himself as the President’s opponent is a political winner.
The proposals advanced by the governor were numerous and covered much of the policy “waterfront.” He gave considerable attention on his women’s rights platform as well as criminal justice reform proposals like significantly reducing the use of cash bail. His speech advanced broad policies in the areas of criminal justice reform, workforce development, protecting the environment, modernization of New York City’s mass transit system, and strengthening voting protections.
The governor referenced the state’s $4 billion budget deficit, but did little to discuss why the deficit has occurred and how he will close it. In terms of corruption, a problem which has plagued the state for years, the governor said little.
Instead of addressing “home grown” problems in New York, the governor chose to characterize the threats facing the state as national, particularly resulting from the actions of the President and the Congress. In particular, the governor said that he would launch a campaign to “repeal and replace” the tax changes approved in Washington last month.
Articulating the problems as national, not the result of state actions or inactions, allows the governor to sidestep the difficult – and possibly unpopular – actions he will have to take during the course of the legislative session.
Clearly, a budget deficit – estimates which range from $1.7 billion to as high as $7 billion – will result in service reductions or revenue increases, or both. Reducing services or raising the cost to state residents is undeniably unpopular and it was not surprising that the governor spent little time articulating his solutions. Those revelations will occur when the governor unveils his budget proposal next week.
And while it wasn’t surprising that the governor spent little time on corruption-fighting measures, after all some of his aides are implicated, it is a big issue that will not go away.
Reacting to the State of the State address, New York’s leading civic organizations called for action. They cited the looming six upcoming corruption trials of high ranking former public officials that begin this month.
Each month of the session, a high profile corruption case will begin. No matter the outcomes for the individuals involved, the trials will undoubtedly paint an unflattering picture of politics in New York. These cases, plus the dozens of resignations and convictions of other public officials has resulted in New York repeatedly dubbed as one of, if not the most, corrupt states in the nation.
The groups urged the state’s leaders to approve a package of Restore Public Trust reforms that include strengthening independent oversight of the state’s system of awarding government contracts, new campaign contribution limits for those seeking government contracts, greater budget transparency, new limits on the outside income of public officials, and the creation of independent oversight entities. New laws are only as good as they are enforced.
How well the governor and the state legislature address corruption should be a key measure for how voters evaluate candidates this coming November.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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