Governor Cuomo continued the roll out of his 2015 agenda Tuesday with details of an infrastructure plan that includes upgrading New York City region airports to providing broadband for upstate rural areas. The governor also offered clues to another key item- education, where he seems determined to take on the status quo.
Cuomo says he’ll upgrade JFK airport with a world class hotel, high speed ferry access, and other improvements, build a train to access La Guardia airport directly, and create tax free zones for cargo companies at Stewart airport in the Hudson Valley and Republic airport on Long Island.
He’ll also create a $1 billion dollar plan for broadband Internet access for underserved rural regions, and will finish financing the Thruway’s new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson, and other improvements to the Thruway, without having to raise Thruway or bridge tolls. The governor, speaking at a business sponsored breakfast in New York City, says he’ll draw on a one time multi billion dollar surplus that’s been generated by settlements with numerous banks over their wrong doing during the recent financial crisis.
“All the costs will be from existing state resources,” Cuomo said. “We had a one time infusion of cash because of large settlements.”
Cuomo has previously outlined other uses for the surplus, including $1.5 billion dollars to upstate economic development, and $250 million dollars for affordable housing.
Betsy Lynam, with the watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission, was at the breakfast. She says it’s wise to use a one time surplus on one time expenses, but she questions whether it’s a good idea to spend the surplus on the Tappan Zee bridge, when there’s already a mechanism to pay for it- the existing system of bridge tolls.
“This is classic user financed opportunity,” Lynam said. “We have tolls for reason. They work very well to finance bridges and roads.”
Lynam says the governor may be promising to hold tolls down because it’s “politically popular,” but she says eventually the tolls will have to rise.
The governor is saving some news for his joint State of the State and budget address. He has not yet spelled out his new education policies, though he’s offered plenty of hints.
Cuomo has said repeatedly that he’s dissatisfied with what he calls the “education industry”, which he labeled the most “sophisticated political machine” in Albany. Cuomo, who has tangled with the teachers union in recent months, reiterated those concerns on Tuesday.
“It probably has been the single greatest failure of the state in many ways,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo says reform, including an overhaul of teacher performance reviews and fixing bad schools are at the top of his agenda. And he says simply spending "more money" is not the answer. He says it’s been tried in the past, with little improvement.
“And you know what it’s gotten us?” Cuomo asked. “A larger and larger bureaucracy, and higher salaries for the people who work in the education industry.”
The teachers union has spent over four million dollars on political campaigns and is running ads, in the days leading up to the State of the State, urging Cuomo not to “settle political scores.”
At a preemptive news conference with education advocates, The Alliance for Quality Education’s Billy Easton says wealthy supporters of expanding charter schools have spent nearly twice that amount, and have contributed large sums to the governor’s campaign.
“You may hear tomorrow, that it’s not about the money,” Easton said. “But you never hear that when hedge fund managers want to make political donations.”
Easton and others, who are asking the governor to fulfill a court order to spend billions more dollars on schools, say they expect a “big fight” this year.
In New York, the governor does not directly control education, Cuomo has not ruled out trying to change the current structure, where an independent Board of Regents chosen by the legislature sets education policy and hires the state education commissioner.
A poll out Tuesday on Governor Cuomo and education issues finds, though, that while Cuomo has gained popularity, New Yorkers prefer that education remain in the hands of the Regents. Steve Greenberg, a spokesman for Siena College, which conducted the survey.
“If he wants control over the education department and policy, he’s got a case to make to the voters before the voters accept that,” Greenberg said.
Cuomo on Wednesday is also likely to reveal his ideas for reform of the state’s criminal justice system in light of recent shootings of police officers, and the death of an unarmed State Island man after an encounter with the police.