This afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his inaugural state of the State address — not from the state house, where it has been traditionally delivered by governors since Al Smith in the twenties, but from the nearby Empire State Plaza Convention Center. In front of hundreds of members of the public, and alongside legislative leaders who were, for the first time, invited to participate by speaking, Cuomo tried to rally the state with a message of change. "This convening itself is a metaphor for change," he said, invoking his inner Obama. "Change is possible in Albany, believe it or not, and I say Amen!"
Cuomo started his speech with a list of the ills facing the state. "Our expenses in this state far exceed revenue," he noted. "This is not a one-year problem; this is a fundamental economic realignment for the state of New York." He also listed the state's weaknesses in education, government organization, special interest control, and business. "We have the worst business-tax climate in the nation," he griped. "Period."
"This year's budget discussion is not just about a budget exercise. This is a fundamental realignment for this state," he warned. "You can't make up these kinds of saving over this period of time through a budget-trimming exercise. We're going to have to reinvent government because the old way wasn't working anyway."
He ran through a litany of proposals, including the creation of ten regional economic research councils that would be public/private sector partnerships whose goal would be to "create jobs, jobs, jobs in those regions." They'd coordinate the economic development monies funneled through each area of the state and compete with one another for grant money. He also proposed a "Spending and Government Efficiency" commission, or SAGE, that would effectively analyze and streamline the state establishment using private and legislative experts. He suggested a similar team to analyze and restructure the way that the state handles Medicaid, starting Friday. He also pledged $100 million to a program to encourage innovation to create green jobs.
He proposed two competitive funds to change the way schools get grant money, as well as the expected state employee wage freeze and a state spending cap, and he promised not to raise taxes. And he emphasized his "Clean Up Albany Plan," which includes enforcing full disclosure of outside income for elected leaders, an independent ethical monitor, an end to pay-to-play public financing of campaigns, and the independent redistricting plan that Ed Koch has been promoting of late.
The speech was not without its moments of humor — Cuomo cracked jokes and used visual aids for comic relief (including one featuring himself, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos as captains on battleships, with "special interests" in a plane flying above and firing missiles down on him). But the most emotional responses from the audience came at the end of the speech, when he spoke about prison reform and civil rights. "Don't put people in juvenile justice facilities just to give people jobs!" he said, to a roar. "And we believe in justice for all? Well then let's pass marriage equality once and for all!"
Cuomo closed with anecdotes from his brief time on the national stage, when he worked with the Clinton Administration and was sent around as a surrogate for the White House to speak in nearly ever state in the country. "Literally in every state — almost invariably, somehow they would figure out I was from New York. I wasn't really sure how, because I never really told them," he said, heightening his accent to get laughs. "Almost without exception, whatever the topic, they'd say, 'What are you doing about this in New York?'"
"Why? Because we are New York. And because our history, our legacy, was we took these different problems and we solved them first, and the rest of the nation learned from us," he said. "Why? Because the New York government was the best ... We're not just going build back, we're going to build back bigger, stronger, and better than before."