With a Democratic-controlled state government for the first time during his tenure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday outlined his 2019 priorities and a $178 billion spending proposal for the next fiscal year to hike education spending by $956 million and legalize adult-use recreational marijuana.
HIGHLIGHTS: CUOMO'S PROPOSALS FOR THE 100 DAYS OF THE 2019 LEGISLATIVE SESSION
Congestion pricing on vehicles heading below 60th Street in Manhattan
Increase education funding by $956 million
Legalize adult-use recreational marijuana
Codify the Affordable Care Act into state law and preserve the mandate to cover pre-existing conditions
Codify Roe v. Wade into New York law (this would require a constitutional amendment approved by voters)
Eliminate cash bail for criminal defendants, have speedy trials, and pass Discovery Reform
Enshrine gender equality into law
Have polls open at 6 a.m. upstate like they do in New York City, and make Election Day a state holiday
Ban bump stocks, and extend the waiting period for purchasing a gun from three days to 10 days
Pass the Child Victims Act
Pass the DREAM Act
Close the LLC loophole, ban corporate campaign contributions, and install a public-matching system for elections similar to New York City's
A $2.5 billion investment in clean water infrastructure, and mandate 100 percent clean power in New York by 2040
Authorize sports betting at existing upstate casinos
Cuomo also announced that he'll include safety reforms for limousines in his state budget proposal in response to the October crash of a stretch limo that killed 20 people in an upstate town. One change would ban reconfigured limos like the modified SUV that crashed into a store's parking lot in Schoharie on Oct. 6, killing the driver, 17 passengers and two pedestrians.
AN INCREASE IN EDUCATION FUNDING
Cuomo's education spending proposal calls for increasing aid by $956 million for a total of $27.7 billion, including another $338 million in Foundation Aid, which is the general operating funding for school districts. The total for Foundation Aid is far short of what education advocates are seeking to fund schools.
The governor is also seeking to change how individual school districts fund poorer schools, pledging to push for equity on the local level.
CUOMO BACKS RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA
The governor also backed the legalization of adult-use marijuana, estimating $300 million in revenue. Adult-use marijuana would be limited to those over age 21 and local governments would be allowed to opt out. In a radio interview Monday, the governor said he thinks local governments should have power to ban retail marijuana shops within in their boundaries.
Cuomo also pledged to aid communities that have been impacted by harsh drug laws with the legalized marijuana law.
Cuomo wants to permit personal use as well as retail sales. Marijuana would be subject to taxes at the cultivation and wholesale level as well as a 20 percent tax on retail sales, the governor said.
Two years ago, Cuomo dismissed marijuana as a "gateway drug" but now says he supports legalization following a study by state health officials who determined the benefits of legalization outweigh the risks. The governor's change of opinion mirrors a similar evolution across the country.
Democratic state legislative leaders have expressed their support for legalizing recreational pot this year. If New York follows through with legalizing marijuana, it would be the 10th state and the second largest after California to take the step.
The proposal comes with a plan to seal past marijuana convictions, a provision lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have said must be a part of the discussion. Many Democrats in the legislature say the state cannot legalize pot without trying to help New Yorkers whose lives were negatively impacted by decades of marijuana prohibition.
While there's broad agreement in Albany about legalization, figuring out the details when it comes to taxing, licensing, and regulating the product is likely to be challenging. Also, Cuomo's proposal would not allow individuals to grow their own marijuana; recreational users would be required to purchase the product at a store. That's a restriction not included in some of the other initial legalization proposals from lawmakers.
"No matter how many states try, pot does not bring the promised 'windfall' of revenue," said Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization. "This fight is far from over. We will be making our voices heard."
A CALL FOR CONGESTION PRICING WITHOUT SOME KEY DETAILS
Cuomo was light on details on his proposal to impose congestion tolls on motorists traveling below 60th Street in Manhattan beginning in 2021. Cuomo didn't release a specific toll amount, or say whether small businesses or low-income commuters would receive a discount. Those details would be figured out during negotiations with the legislature. The tolls would be intended to discourage traffic while raising money for badly needed repairs to the city's subway system.
A broad coalition of local chambers of commerce, environmental groups, and transit riders argues congestion tolls are the best way to address the city's beleaguered transit system. Several hailed Cuomo's support, but said they want to see the details. A previous study has estimated tolls as high as $12.
Cuomo was also relatively vague about a proposal to overhaul the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to reduce bureaucracy and place it more firmly under his authority. Cuomo already appoints the MTA chairperson and largely controls the agency, but says it needs structural changes in order to more aggressively address mounting delays and breakdowns.
"Millions of transit riders are counting on the governor and Legislature to fix our subways and buses with a new, dependable source of funding," according to a statement from a coalition of supporters that include the Riders Alliance, the League of Conservation Voters and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
Cuomo's budget proposal includes funding to install the necessary electronic tolling equipment.
A PLASTIC BAG BAN/BOTTLE BILL
The governor said he also wants the state to expand the bottle bill to include 5-cent deposits on most non-alcoholic containers such as sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages, and ready-to-drink bottled tea and coffee. Dairy milk, milk substitutes, infant formula, syrups, and flavorings would be exempted.
Cuomo says the state should ban the use of single-use plastic bags at stores across New York and add a 5-cent deposit to most non-alcoholic beverages not already included in the state's bottle bill.
Cuomo's effort to get a plastic bag ban passed last year was shot down by the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Cuomo himself helped stop a proposed ban on plastic bags in New York City two years ago before announcing that he would support a statewide law prohibiting the ubiquitous bags.
His bottle bill expansion would include sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages, and ready-to-drink bottled tea and coffee. Products such as dairy milk and infant formula would be exempted.
Cuomo wants to spend another $500 million for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure and allocate an additional $110 million in capital funding for state parks and historic sites.
A 180 ON AUDIT PROCEDURES FOR STATE CONTRACTS
Addressing the recent corruption scandals in Albany, Cuomo embraced new audit procedures for state contracts, something he worked against passing last year.
Cuomo's top aide, Joe Percoco, and others were convicted on corruption charges last year stemming from their work surrounding state contracts.
"Comptroller DiNapoli and I have agreed on a new process to implement procurement reforms. I will direct SUNY/CUNY and OGS [Office of General Services] to allow the office of the state comptroller to pre-audit contracts in excess of $250,000. But the pre-audit must be done in 30 days," the governor said.
A RAPID TIMETABLE FOR LEGISLATION
Ultimately, lawmakers may pass some of the proposals in Cuomo's agenda before the budget, a $4 billion increase from last year, is even due.
In previous years, lawmakers usually did note vote on significant bills until the budget, which is due April 1, was hammered out.
Things are different this year, however, because Democrats control both the state Assembly and Senate. The party won the Senate in November elections, and by a comfortable margin. Only 32 Senate seats are needed to form a majority, but Democrats have 39 members, which makes passing legislation much easier. In the Assembly, Democrats hold 106 of 150 seats.
Looking to capitalize on their newfound power immediately, then, the Senate and Assembly on Monday, the first day of the 2019 legislative session, approved a slew of voting reforms that the previous Republican-controlled state Senate had blocked. Among them are early voting that would require counties to allow New Yorkers to vote in person up to 10 days before an election, holding all state primaries in June instead of September, and preregistering 16- and 17-year olds when they sign up for a driving permit so they would automatically be registered when they turn 18.
The legislature is also beginning the process of passing constitutional amendments for same-day voter registration and no-fault absentee ballots to allow people to vote by mail. Possible constitutional changes must pass the legislature twice before going to the voters, meaning those questions could not appear on a ballot until at least 2021.
The election reform bills passed both chambers easily and with bipartisan support. The measure now goes to Cuomo, who said he supports the idea.
LAWMAKERS APPROVE PROTECTIONS FOR GENDER EXPRESSION, TRANSGENDER NEW YORKERS
Before the speech Tuesday, the legislature passed legislation that would create legal protections for transgender New Yorkers and gender expression, the most significant piece of LGBTQ rights bill to be approved in the last seven years.
Cheers erupted in the state Senate shortly after the 42-19 vote was announced.
"When we're able to pass marriage equality, none of us thought it would take eight years to get to today," Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart-Cousins said. "But we are here."
Cuomo is expected to sign the measure into law.
Aspects of the bill were first approved in the state's civil rights regulation by Cuomo in 2015 after Republicans, who controlled the Senate at the time, declined to take up the bill.
"The passage of GENDA [the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act] — 16 years in the making — will codify our progressive reputation and ensure that all New Yorkers, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation are treated equally and with respect," State Sen. Brad Hoylman said.
Lawmakers had previously in 2002 approved the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, but advocates have argued the legislation fell short of protections for transgender and gender expression when it comes to housing, the workplace, and other facets of life.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.