ALBANY — Laying out his election-year agenda, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Wednesday for corporate tax cuts to spark the sluggish upstate economy and promised to promote a $2 billion borrowing plan to pay for computer and technology improvements for schools.
In his fourth State of the State address, the first-term Democrat also urged the adoption of a full-day pre-kindergarten requirement without saying how that specific proposal would be funded. Cuomo also called for a plan that would send $20,000 bonuses to highly effective school teachers.
The “Smart Schools” plan to fund technology upgrades to classrooms would have to be approved by state voters in the form of a $2 billion bond act that would be on the ballot this fall, he said.
“There are some schools where the most sophisticated piece of electronics equipment is the metal detector that you walk through on the way to the classroom,” he said. “That is just wrong in the state of New York.”
Cuomo decried the fact that New York has the dubious distinction of having the highest property taxes in the nation. He suggested the reason is “we have too many local governments, and we’ve had them for too long.”
He did not provide any detailed advice as to how New Yorkers could consolidate the thousands of local taxing jurisdictions. Recent history has suggested that consolidating local governments can be an uphill battle, with voters in the village of Richfield Springs rejecting a proposal to dissolve the village government last year, and a similar plan being blocked in the village of Cobleskill.
Cuomo took credit for eliminating what he said was a $10 billion deficit when he first came into office in 2011 and producing what he said is now a $2 billion surplus.
“We were on the precipice of an abyss,” Cuomo said. “We changed the direction of the state for the better.”
He advocated cutting the corporate tax rate for upstate manufacturers to zero percent and slashing the statewide corporate tax rate from 7.1 percent to what it was in 1968 — 6.5 percent. He also called for redoubling efforts to promote tourism, and said new road signage is in the works to guide motorists to relaxing destinations they can visit when traveling.
Sen. Jim Seward, R-Milford, said he was pleased Cuomo stressed the need to cut both corporate and property taxes throughout the state, and wants to help upstate manufacturers by wiping out the corporate tax for them.
“We’re talking about a budget surplus now instead of a budget deficit, and we’re talking about tax cuts instead of tax increases,” Seward said. “That’s a big step in the right direction.”
Seward said he is hoping Cuomo will come up with ideas for eliminating the “gap elimination adjustment” in the state’s school aid formula, a device that he said shortchanges some districts of their fair share of state financial assistance.
The adjustment was instituted in 2010 to spread out what was then the state’s fiscal gap by cutting the amount of state foundation aid to the school districts.
Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, R-New Hartford, said while Cuomo kicked around several ideas for generating economic vitality, she found his speech lacking in substance.
“He wants to do property tax relief, but he has all these strings attached,” said Tenney, whose district includes several communities in Otsego and Delaware counties.
Tenney said she was left unimpressed by Cuomo’s selection of Mark Gearan, the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, as the chairman of the state’s new casino commission that will decide where to locate four non-Indian casinos approved by voters last fall.
Tenney said the state needs “a real gaming industry professional” to oversee the introduction of new casinos.
Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, said Cuomo got off to a good start in 2014 by focusing on the need for expanding economic development in upstate communities.
But Lopez said the speech ignored the need to bring financial stability to school districts and failed to address the problems with the Common Core standards. Teachers and parents have criticized state-mandated performance evaluations, which they are argue are unfair. Most students in third through eighth grade failed to reach the standards in tests conducted in April.
Both Lopez and Seward said they were pleased that Cuomo announced in his speech that he will organize a “summit” aimed at helping upstate farmers get their produce to New York City consumers. Numerous farmers in Delaware, Schoharie and Otsego counties are already collaborating in trucking their crops, fruits and meats to downstate markets on a regular basis.
As Cuomo entered the Empire State Convention Center to deliver the speech, more than a thousand activists opposed to the shale gas extraction method known as hydrofracking stood inside a concourse near the entrance and urged him to keep drillers out of New York.
Cuomo did not mention natural gas drilling in his speech. He has said he will await the results of a review by state health Commissioner Nirav Shah before his administration makes a decision on whether fracking permits will be issued to drillers.
Fracking opponent Allegra Schecter of Roseboom said she and other demonstrators weren’t pleased that police directed them to stand inside an area surrounded by a steel gate.
“They’ve got us penned up like animals in a little cage,” she said. “This (the debate over fracking in New York) has been going on for six years. But we think it’s important that Americans know we aren’t giving up and we will fight until the bitter end.”
Ellen Pope, director of Otsego 2000, said about 70 of the demonstrators had arrived from Oneonta, Cooperstown and Sharon Springs on buses, while another 30 or so drove to Albany in their cars.
She said some state lawmakers have tried to dodge the issue by pointing to the fact that the issue of home rule — the ability of local towns to zone out drilling — will be decided by the state Court of Appeals later this year. “That’s a little bit of a cop-out,” Pope said.
Several dozen gun rights advocates also staged a demonstration nearby, protesting restrictions on firearms enacted last year through the passage of Cuomo’s SAFE Act.
Cuomo mentioned the SAFE Act only briefly, insisting it has made New Yorkers safer.
The state Association of Counties, reacting to Cuomo’s call for property tax relief, said lower taxes can only be achieved by providing relief to the counties from state mandates “We cannot have county property tax relief without state leaders reforming the way we fund and deliver major state programs such as pre-school education, public assistance and Medicaid,” the association said in a statement.
While Cuomo touted several projects bringing jobs to such upstate locations as Buffalo, Utica, the Finger Lakes region and Saranac Lake, he made no mention of any specific programs destined for Otsego, Schoharie, Delaware or Chenango counties.have
Cuomo also reminded state lawmakers that they have not passed the 10-point Women’s Equality Act he rolled out last year. That measure was bottled up in the state Senate last year due to objections to a provision that Cuomo said will strengthen abortion laws.
“Stop playing politics with women’s rights,” he said in a line that draw the loudest applause of any in his 69-minute speech.
Cuomo also exhorted the legislators to pass tougher ethics laws and root out corruption by authorizing public financing of campaigns and requirements that lawmakers disclose their outside income.