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For Cuomo, COVID-19 is a 'War' and New York is Winning

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address Monday.
Credit: Gov. Cuomo's Office

Gov. Cuomo's 2021 State of the State Address

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered a broad message of resilience against the COVID-19 pandemic and optimism for the state’s economy Monday in his State of the State address, which he presented as a series of broad points related to the virus and the state’s finances.

He delivered the speech in what’s referred to as the War Room in the state capitol; a room filled with murals of military conflicts in U.S. history, where he likened the virus to another war.

“We are at war — a war that started last year when we were ambushed by the COVID virus, and a war that continues today,” Cuomo said.

As expected, much of the speech focused on the state’s projected $15 billion budget deficit heading into this year, with other proposals mixed in along the way.

The address, the first installment of four this week, appeared to be an expansive picture of the state’s strategy against the pandemic, while offering Cuomo’s thoughts on how the state’s economy could move forward. More details are expected in the coming days.

As for specific proposals, Cuomo outlined a handful of ideas he’d like to see the state Legislature codify in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among them is a proposal he’s calling the Medical Supplies Act. The measure would provide financial incentives for companies to manufacture medical supplies in New York, in exchange for the state purchasing those products.

Cuomo said that was in response to what happened in the spring, when many states were struggling to obtain enough medical supplies to protect workers and respond to the pandemic.

“Too many essential products are made in China,” Cuomo said. “We must have capacity in the United States and even here in New York.”

Cuomo also proposed an expansion of the use of telehealth, which has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic as an avenue for individuals to obtain health care without risking an in-person visit.

His proposal would essentially eliminate barriers for individuals to use telehealth, and require insurance companies to offer a telehealth program to members. He also wants to make telehealth more accessible for Medicaid recipients.

He also announced an initiative to create a statewide unit of health emergency volunteers that could be deployed in the community to respond to future crises. His goal, he said, is to train and certify 100,000 people as health emergency volunteers.

But much of the speech focused on the state’s budget gap, which Cuomo has said is a result of lost tax revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the state’s direct cost of its response.

Assembly Republican Leader Will Barclay said in a statement after the address that Cuomo was scant on details, including on how the state would help small businesses, which have been hit hard by economic shutdowns over the past year.

“He presented far too little on help for small businesses, direct assistance to families, future logistics on the state’s slow vaccination roll-out or how he plans to address New York’s mounting debt and precarious budget deficit,” Barclay said.

Cuomo, again, pushed back on efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy in New York as an avenue to curb the deficit. He said it wouldn’t raise enough money to fill the budget gap, though supporters of higher taxes on the rich disputed that claim Monday.

“These measures will raise enough revenue to close this year’s budget gap, and furnish the state with the resources to invest in housing, education, health, services, transit, climate resilience and more,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, state director for the Working Families Party.

Cuomo didn’t shut down the idea entirely, instead saying it should happen on the federal level.

“If the Federal government needs revenue it should raise income taxes on the wealthy to finance the state's resurgence from this national devastation,” Cuomo said. “That is basic economic justice and economic prudence.”

Democrats, who now control all of Congress, haven’t said they’ll raise federal taxes on the wealthy.

Cuomo said he’s, instead, still banking on a major infusion of funding from the federal government to help cure the state’s budget deficit. That’s not unlikely; Biden is a close ally of Cuomo and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer is set to be the new majority leader.

“The new federal government has no credible argument against the fact that New York's damage from COVID is clearly, legally and ethically Washington's liability,” Cuomo said.

For the third year in a row, Cuomo also said he would support the legalization of marijuana for adult use. He also pitched a new proposal to allow mobile sports betting.

Both issues will likely be negotiated between Cuomo and the state Legislature as part of the state budget, given the potential fiscal impact. Cuomo typically likes to negotiate financially sensitive issues as part of the spending plan.

On marijuana, Cuomo has been divided with the Legislature about how the revenue from the industry should be used. He wants to be flexible with that funding, while Democrats in the Legislature want to earmark it to be reinvested in communities of color.

In general, Cuomo’s continued support for legalization got a thumbs up from industry representatives Monday.

“There is no more time to wait as we have watched other states around the nation, and now our neighbors, legalize adult use cannabis,” the New York Cannabis Growers & Processors Association said in a statement.

Mobile sports betting is a trickier issue. Cuomo had previously clashed with the Legislature over the constitutionality of its legalization.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Westchester, said Monday afternoon that they hadn’t had a chance to review his proposal, but that they’ve been working on one of their own as well.

“This is new, that the governor is willing to take a look at that,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I’m sure we will be able to continue our discussions and hopefully get to a good end.”

Cuomo also said he wanted to double down on the state’s commitment to sustainable energy, through infrastructure and other projects, but didn’t provide details.

One possibility would be for the Legislature to approve what’s called the Environmental Bond Act, which would allow the state to borrow money to finance environmental projects. It passed last year, but was later dropped because of the state’s finances.

Stewart-Cousins said her conference would like to revisit the bond act, assuming the state’s economy is in a place for it to move forward this year.

“We would love to do that again,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I think our conference is very excited about that and very sorry that our economics allowed for the governor’s decision.”

Cuomo did not say what his remaining three speeches would focus on, but they’re expected to be delivered at some point this week.

Watch: Cuomo's 2021 State of the State