Cuomo’s to-do list heftier
Governor’s Year Three issues include minimum wage, gambling, gun control in untested political landscape
By Rick Karlin Albany Times Union January 6, 2013
ALBANY – It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out what some of the top priorities will be during the upcoming state legislative session that begins in earnest after Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s State of the State speech on Wednesday.
The governor, who has a proven ability to get his way with lawmakers, outlined his priorities in a Times Union commentary and elsewhere creating a “litmus test” that includes protecting the property tax cap, instituting campaign finance reform, increasing the minimum wage and gun control.
It’s notable that the litmus test ran to 10 items. In his first year, Cuomo passed what are to date his signature initiatives: legalizing gay marriage and a tax cap.
Year Two had a less dramatic agenda, including the ongoing overhaul of economic development programs, creating an agency to guard against abuse and neglect of the disabled; and passage of a less costly public pension plan.
Year Three brings an even longer list, although some of the items have been on the radar for a while.
Additionally, 2013 will bring a new twist in getting the governor’s ideas through the Legislature and vice versa. The closely divided state Senate will be led by a coalition of Republicans, who once again hold a thin majority, and the five-member Independent Democratic Conference.
It’s an untested way of running the Senate and there have been comparisons to a European-style parliamentary government.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the key issues facing the governor and lawmakers in the coming months.
Gun control: The massacre in Newtown, Conn. has made this Job One, with the governor poised to push for passage of a bill this month. That was made clear as recently as Friday, when the IDC traveled to the Capitol to meet with the governor.
“We need to do it in January,” Klein said after his group met with Cuomo for about 90 minutes on Friday. “As quickly as possible.”
The gun control push will also be the first test of how the IDC-Republican coalition will work out in the Senate. First indications of that were rocky – the IDC and GOP already appear to be split on the issue. While the IDC agrees with Cuomo and other Democrats on the idea of a ban on assault-style weapons, Republicans released a plan calling for tougher penalties on gun crimes but with no mention of an assault gun ban.
Details of Cuomo’s plan aren’t finalized, but Klein said Friday the measure would likely include a ban on guns like the Bushmaster used in Newtown, as well as high-capacity magazines that let a shooter fire a lot of rounds quickly.
Despite the apparent split between Republicans and Democrats, just one or two Republicans could provide enough votes to get an assault weapon ban over the top.
Minimum wage: The Democratic Assembly favors raising the state’s federally mandated $7.25-an-hour minimum wage and Cuomo pegged that as a priority.
Many Republicans oppose an increase, but there have been rumblings that they would go along in exchange for a pro-business move such as small-business tax credits.
Nor is the business community completely against a wage hike – the state’s Retail Council, for instance, says its members are open to the idea.
There are lots of details to work out – would it be indexed to inflation with automatic increases or would this be a one-time pay hike?
Campaign finance: Cuomo wants to reshape state campaign finance laws, which have been long derided by good-government groups as overly porous.
The need for an overhaul has become clearer, the governor and others have argued, since the 2010 Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision, which ruled that corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts on political advertising and activities so long as they were “independent expenditures” not coordinated with any candidate or campaign.
Different remedies are being advocated. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wants new rules that would require 501(c)-4 non-profit groups, which have become vessels for political spending, to disclose their donors if they are involved in New York elections. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli last week sued a telecommunications company in which the state’s largest pension fund is an investor, for records of its political spending. Each wants more transparency as to which donor is giving to which politician.
Labor unions, progressive groups and some wealthy liberal donors want a system limiting what candidates can raise, but matching donations with taxpayer funds. Cuomo, too, is on record in support of such a system, but said last month he’s not wedded to that as he negotiates a legislative package.
That’s important because Republicans who control the state Senate have attacked the use of tax dollars for political campaigns. Several GOP legislators have said they support more disclosure and lower contribution limits.
Legalizing casino gambling: If, as expected, lawmakers approve it this year, a constitutional amendment allowing casinos could go before voters in November.
That would allow up to seven Las Vegas-style casinos in the state in addition to the five already operated by Indian tribes.
There is some potential conflict between the governor and lawmakers: Legislators hope to identify sites before the required second vote – some of them want assurances from the governor that a casino would go in their district. And members of the public may want to know where these casinos might or might not be built.
Cuomo has said he isn’t sure voters and lawmakers need to know in advance where the sites will be.
But gambling industry officials say that the chances of voters saying “yes” to casinos are diminished unless they know where the facilities would be located.
Infrastructure: Following Sandy, Cuomo said he believes we’re entering an era in which catastrophic storms will be more likely.
That means New York needs better protection for power lines, fuel reserves and other proactive measures. But the most immediate impact on Sandy may be on state finances. While the administration has said they don’t believe the storm will affect the state’s $133 billion-plus budget, that could change if Washington doesn’t pay what New Yorkers say should be its share of the bill.
Cuomo has been interested in infrastructure since he took office, realizing the state’s roads and bridges need upgrading – and the projects create jobs. Watch for jockeying among lawmakers who all want projects in their districts.
Hydrofracking: The issue is moving to a decision after years of study and debate by those who favor and oppose the practice of high-pressure hydraulic fracturing to pump natural gas from the earth.
It has sparked an economic boom in Pennsylvania but remains under a moratorium in New York amid concerns over pollution and other impacts. The state Department of Health is completing a study of possible health effects and the governor’s Department of Environmental Conservation is expected this winter to offer what would essentially be a limited green light or red light on the practice.
Lawmakers, including a number of Assembly Democrats, oppose it, setting up the possibility of a legislative fight over what would otherwise be a regulatory matter.
Stop and frisk: Cuomo and Democrats have long pushed for reforms that would make it harder for police to stop and frisk people on suspicion of carrying drugs or other illegal substances. Law enforcement says this has helped suppress violent crime rates, especially in New York City but civil libertarians point to abuses, making for a classic liberal vs. conservative, or Democratic vs. Republican debate.
Local government: Cuomo in his first year pushed through a 2 percent cap on property and school tax increases. The cap can be overridden with enough votes but it remains a sore point with localities and schools as well as groups like the state teachers union, saying it has led to financial shortfalls.
The cap concept remains popular with New York’s battered taxpayers so there’s little chance it will go away. But expect lawmakers to push to get more state money for local schools, counties and municipalities as a way to bridge the gap.
And expect Cuomo to argue, as he has before, that the state has been able to balance its budget and localities should do the same, even if it means hard choices.
Economic development: Recent reports indicate the governor wants to reorganize the state’s Economic Development agency and Cuomo has long said that creating jobs is a priority. The issue comes down to money or the lack of it. The state already spends millions on incentives and tax breaks for business – expect Cuomo and lawmakers to keep trying to get the most bang for the dollars.
James M. Odato and Jimmy Vielkind contributed.