Cuomo pitches plans for environmental bonds, legal pot

Associated Press Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center on Wednesday in Albany.

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State speech Wednesday he will push for a $3 billion environmental bond act and build on his push for the legalization of marijuana by proposing a Global Cannabis and Hemp Center in the State University system.

While Cuomo mentioned the challenges ahead in attempting to tackle a $6.1 billion budget gap, he offered few specifics of his intentions. It is expected many more details will come later this month when he presents his proposed spending plan.

Cuomo also stayed clear of the growing public uproar over New York's shift away from cash bail for dozens of criminal offenses. Prosecutors, police executives, Republicans and even some Democrats are insisting state leaders restore the ability of judges to remand defendants if their release could jeopardize public safety.

Cuomo's new environmental initiative would require voter approval for what he dubbed the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act.

Contending human activity is responsible for "imbalance" in the ecosystem, the governor said, "It is our responsibility to leave our planet cleaner and greener" for generations to come.

Money from the bond act would be used to address impacts from climate change and make repairs after flooding such as those that soaked the shores of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Cuomo said.

He also outlined his plan to ban Polystyrene, a type of plastic that is used in some single-use food containers.

In trying to bring the commercial sale of marijuana to New York, Cuomo said his administration will work with officials from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut to coordinate a "safe and fair system."

His pot push was bottled up last year after opponents pushed the Democratic-led Senate not to authorize the bill. It will likely face intense opposition this year as well.

The leader of the state Parents Teachers Association, Kyle Belokopitsky, who attended the speech, told CNHI Cuomo will face resistance this year because the Legislature has already decriminalized small amounts of cannabis and authorized the engagement of marijuana arrest records.

"In the states that have legal marijuana, we're seeing this drug trickle down to children," said Belokopitsky, who opposes the legalization of recreational marijuana. She also said there are concerns about the ability of police to maintain traffic safety if people drive after or while they use marijuana.

The Cuomo administration projects that revenue from pot sales would bring the state treasury about $300 million annually.

Cuomo also drew attention to rising Medicaid spending, suggesting the budget hole facing the state is attributable to the taxpayer-funded health care program for poor people. His remarks suggested that the gap may have to be closed by higher payments from local governments, though specifics of how that would be accomplished were absent in his remarks.

"The situation is unsustainable," said Cuomo, a Democrat in his third term, noting the state is facing Medicaid cuts from the federal government.

In a move that won praise from the National Federation of Independent Business, Cuomo proposed shaving the franchise tax rate for firms employing fewer than 100 workers from 6.5 percent to 4 percent.

Another proposal would guarantee workers employed by businesses with five to 99 employees be required to have at least five days of job protected paid sick leave each year. And firms with at least 100 employees would be required to offer workers up to seven days of paid sick leave annually. Businesses with four or fewer workers would have to offer five unpaid sick days annually.

Greg Biryla, the director of NFIB's New York branch, said that while his group has "real concerns" with such mandates, "it was refreshing to see the governor's mandatory sick leave proposal make a distinction between big-box corporations and Main Street entrepreneurs in its application."

Cuomo promised to beef up the State Police hate crimes unit following a rash of anti-Semitic attacks that included a violent rampage at a Rockland County Hanukkah party. But he disappointed some lawmakers by making no mention of the bail law controversy.

State Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said constituents are demanding change to the new law though it is less than two weeks old.

"It has obviously made our communities and our homes less safe," the senator said.

Another topic that was conspicuously absent, Seward said, was "the fact that New York leads the nation in the out-migration of population, particularly in the upstate region."

Assemblyman Cliff Crouch, R-Bainbridge, argued Cuomo should have responded to the "crisis" caused by the new bail law.

"The governor once again kicked off the legislative year with yet another dog-and-pony show that fails to address the real issues," Crouch said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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