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Cuomo's State of State plans take him away from the Capitol

Posted by Karen DeWitt on

Governor Cuomo’s doing something different with the State of the State this year. Instead of delivering a speech to lawmakers in Albany, who will have to approve his proposals, he’s giving six mini-speeches in three days all around the state. Legislative leaders will not be attending.

For nearly a century, the State of the State was held early in January, with traditions including a cordial reception at the governor’s mansion, and a lavish brunch by the Assembly Speaker. But on January  4th, at high noon, on the day that would normally be the date of the State of the State speech in the Assembly chamber, Cuomo was nowhere near the Capitol, as the Senate and Assembly gaveled in for the New Year. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie gave his own State of the State message, laying out Assembly Democrats’ priorities for the session, as did the leader of the Senate.

Cuomo was in New York City at that very same hour, talking to a group of business leaders, and explaining why he’s not giving a traditional speech to the legislators.

Cuomo’s been inching away from the tradition in recent years, first holding the speech in a convention center controlled by the executive branch, then delaying the event until later in the month of January, combining it with his budget presentation.  He’s now scheduled six separate speeches in several regions of the state.

“Why?” Cuomo asked rhetorically. “Because there’s too much to do in one 40 minute segment in Albany. We have so much going on this state.”

Cuomo says under the constitution, the governor doesn’t have to give a speech at all, he need only provide a written “memo” to lawmakers, which his office says he’ll produce very soon. He says it was former Governor Al Smith who in 1923 decided to deliver a speech in the Assembly chambers, where Smith once served.

“Because he was from the Assembly, and you always want to play to a favorable audience,” Cuomo explained.

And having a receptive crowd might be the key to Cuomo’s change in plans this year. The governor had a falling out with the legislature in December. Negotiations to hold a special session that would have included pay raises for Senators and Assemblymembers failed. They have not seen their salaries increased in 18 years. There were rumors of a boycott of a State of the State speech, which would leave embarrassingly empty seats. Already in 2016 Cuomo endured a heckling from Assemblyman Charles Barron, who has had long time differences with the governor.

“You were wrong!” the Assemblyman shouted on January 13, 2016, as Cuomo, from the podium, tried to quell the outburst.  

The six mini speeches outside the Capitol have left lawmakers feeling angry and slighted. All four major and minority party legislative leaders say they aren’t going to any of the speeches, even ones held in their home regions.

Senate Leader John Flanagan, who’s had a rocky relationship with Cuomo lately, doesn’t think much of Cuomo’s statewide tour.

“The State of the State should be delivered in the assembly chamber,” said Flanagan. “I’ve always believed in that tradition.”

A spokesman says Flanagan was invited to the address in his home region of Long Island, but declined because it coincides with a session day scheduled months ago.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is also not going to Cuomo’s speeches. The one in New York City, where Heastie’s from, will occur on a session day as well. But the Speaker tried to downplay any ill will the governor’s move might be causing.

“What’s more important for us is what’s in the message,” Heastie said. “ And not where the message is delivered.”

Cuomo will be giving an address in Albany, though it won’t be at the Capitol, but at the State University campus a few miles away. And it will be on a day that the legislature has already adjourned for the week.

There’s another reason the governor might want to take the emphasis off of the Capitol. It’s been the focus of several major corruption scandals including two that led to jail time for both former legislative leaders.  And nine Cuomo associates, including a former top aide, and the former architect of his upstate economic development programs, are facing multiple charges, including bribery and bid rigging.

But, despite the mutual State of the State boycott  between Cuomo and state lawmakers,  they will all have to work together eventually on issues like passing the budget, which is expected to have a deficit, and perhaps implementing new laws- to make college tuition free for more students, and allowing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft in more places in New York.

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