• The Star Staff

With state in crisis, Cuomo outlines plan to ‘win the COVID war’

By Jesse McKinley and Luis Ferré-Sadurní

Facing a daunting budget crisis and a surging second wave of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday unveiled his vision of New York’s agenda for the year, focused on righting the state’s finances and its citizens’ health in a moment of profound concern about the nation’s well-being.

Speaking from a nearly empty room in the state Capitol — the ceremonial War Room just steps from his office — Cuomo unveiled a seven-point plan for the state, with many of the points touching on the coronavirus and its ramifications.

“We are hurt, we are frustrated, and we are in mourning, we are anxious, we are shocked that an invisible enemy could wreak such death and destruction,” he said, adding that the disease created a “low tide in America,” exposing political, racial and social divisions.

Still, Cuomo said New York was different. “We will win the COVID war. And we will learn and grow from the experience.”

To that end, Cuomo unveiled a series of proposals to fortify the health care vulnerabilities laid bare by the pandemic, vowing to provide incentives for the manufacturing of medical supplies in New York to diminish the reliance on China. The governor also announced the creation of a state public health corps of 1,000 fellows and a program to train 100,000 citizens as health care emergency volunteers.

In recent days, Cuomo has also put forth other proposals reflecting the effect of the disease: expanding access to telemedicine services in the state, extending a moratorium on commercial evictions for businesses, and creating a new office to combat domestic violence, which has increased during the crisis.

Considering the dire circumstances, the governor’s address was perhaps his most momentous since he took office in 2011 in the face of a nearly $10 billion deficit.

This year, the projected revenue shortfall of $15 billion is the largest in state history, amid widespread economic carnage, Cuomo said. “Businesses have been lost, lifetime savings have been exhausted, personal debt has mounted,” he said.

The governor, a Democrat now in his 11th year in office, had already presented proposals focused on both the bedrock of democracy — with a passel of election-reform laws — as well the state’s bottom line: Cuomo wants to legalize recreational marijuana and mobile sports betting, aiming to inject new revenue into the state’s hollowed-out coffers.

The climate surrounding the speech was far different from that of previous years, especially in Washington, which is in the midst of transition and turmoil.

New York officials are hoping that the state’s miserable economic outlook — a projected deficit of more than $60 billion over the next four years — will be reversed by a federal bailout and other friendly policies. And to be sure, the election of Joe Biden, a Democrat-led Congress and the looming ascension of Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn native, to Senate majority leader, all bode well for the state.

The governor said last week that he rewrote his address after Democrats won a pair of Senate races in Georgia, effectively giving the party control of Congress. The news gave Cuomo increased confidence that the state could avoid steep tax increases and spending cuts, though his reliance on a federal bailout has worried budget watchdogs who see it as an excuse for the state to spend more without addressing its structural problems.

The governor’s State of the State address was the first of four policy speeches he plans this week, and he promised to announce more details about economic stimulus soon. He made clear that the state needed “to jump-start the economy now,” promising a New Deal-style program to invest in infrastructure, including air, rail, and road projects as well as housing.

The governor’s address comes two years after Democrats retook full control of state government in 2019, when the Legislature had one of the most productive sessions in recent memory, passing a flurry of progressive priorities that had long been stymied by Republicans who controlled the state Senate. By contrast, many of the objectives Cuomo unveiled last year were derailed or overshadowed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the governor’s arguably two most popular proposals — the legalization of pot and mobile sports betting — will require resolving disagreements with legislative leaders over how best to implement them.

Legalizing recreational marijuana, for example, is expected to generate billions of dollars in economic activity and about $300 million in tax revenue in its first year, but legalization efforts have previously fallen apart following disputes over who should get licenses and how to spend the tax money. And marijuana tax dollars would not immediately solve the state’s budget crisis; much of the money wouldn’t materialize until years down the road.

Cuomo long opposed legalization — he described weed as a “gateway drug” just a few years ago — but his position evolved in 2018 as neighboring states spearheaded similar efforts and Cuomo faced a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, a progressive who made marijuana legalization a tenet of her campaign.

The coronavirus may change financial and political calculations about many issues: Since last March, no state has had more deaths than New York, with more than 39,000.

The governor is now trying to remedy a sluggish vaccine rollout in New York, which has seen sharp increases in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths during the worst period yet in the coronavirus crisis. Cuomo has harshly criticized the federal response and said his own government’s vaccine plan is being hamstrung by the limited supply of vaccine to the states.

Beyond significant aid to backfill the budget, Cuomo is also hoping that federal officials increase the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate — New York has long had one of the most costly programs in the nation — and pave the way for infrastructure projects like the extension of the Second Avenue Subway and the Gateway Tunnel project.

At the same time, it remains to be seen how newly emboldened Democrats in the Legislature will use their veto-proof supermajorities to pursue far-reaching proposals that Cuomo might be reluctant to embrace, like new taxes on the wealthy, reforms to solitary confinement in prisons or the creation of a single-payer health care system in New York.

Indeed, on Monday, Cuomo only described increasing the state income tax on the wealthy as a hypothetical scenario, framing it as insufficient to cover the state’s budget gap. Left-wing groups that support a bevy of new taxes on the superrich disagree with that assertion, saying such taxes could raise billions of dollars quickly.

“Federal relief never was, and is not today, sufficient to meet the needs of people up and down our state,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the state director of the Working Families Party. “It is past time for the governor to stop shifting responsibility onto others and start taking measures that are wholly within his power.”

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