Governor Cuomo proposes “robust and aggressive” agenda for 2020

January 08, 2020 – Albany, NY – Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his 2020 State of the State Address to the Legislature. Photo by Darren McGee, courtesy of the Governor’s Office.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his tenth State of the State Address Wednesday, outlining a “robust” and “aggressive” plan for the 2020 legislative session that includes dozens of economic development projects, new consumer protections, tighter gun restrictions and environmental initiatives.

Ideas proposed for the coming year range from the grandiose — updating the state’s Equal Rights Amendment and protecting citizens against domestic terrorism — to the more modest, but no less welcome — reigning in robocalls and recounting close elections.

Among the highlights:

  • Legalizing recreational marijuana for adults
  • Passing the Hate Crime Anti-Terrorism Act
  • Preventing individuals who commit a serious crime in another state from owning a gun in New York
  • Requiring automatic manual recounts in close elections
  • Closing the “intoxication loophole” in rape cases
  • Banning the use of single-use Styrofoam food containers
  • Lowering prescription drug prices
  • Preventing sexual predators from using social media, dating apps and online video games
  • Outlawing flavored nicotine vaping products and vaping ads aimed at children
  • Making most robocalls illegal
  • Allowing beer and alcohol sales in movie theaters
  • Banning sex offenders from MTA subways, trains and buses
  • Making synthetic opioids illegal and expanding opioid treatment programs

Acknowledging a $6 billion budget gap this coming budget year, Gov. Cuomo said “the current challenges are daunting, but it is nothing New York can’t handle.”

Quoting Leonard Cohen, Henry David Thoreau, Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington, Cuomo’s  78-minute minute speech was book-ended by messages of unity amidst a rash of recent hate crimes aimed at Jewish communities in New York and racism nationwide.

In response, he proposes the Hate Crime Anti-Terrorism Act which would punish mass violence motivated by hate as an A-1 class felony, punishable by up to life in prison without parole.

“New York can stem this ugly tide and calm the sea of division,” Cuomo said. “New York must be the antidote to hate and discrimination.

“Our ship of state is stronger than it has been in decades, but the ocean we navigate is as tempest tossed as we have seen” Cuomo said. “Waves of anxiety, injustice and frustration are being fanned by winds of anger and division, creating a political and social superstorm, but these are the times when New York is called upon to show leadership and set a course for a troubled nation.”

Photo by Don Pollard, Office of the Governor.

The governor unveiled 34 proposals in the days leading up to Wednesday’s speech, which marks the official start to the 2020 legislative session. In his address, the governor provided more detail on how he hopes the initiatives and programs will be realized.

The speech, delivered in the state’s Convention Center in the Empire State Plaza in Albany, was delivered to state lawmakers, government officials, faith leaders, special guests and members of the public who won a seat through a lottery system.

Outside the speech, in the concourse of the Empire State Plaza, hundreds of pharmacists in white coats protested for hours, chanting “hey hey, ho ho, PBMs have got to go,” referring to pharmacy benefits managers, which have been blamed for inflating drug costs and limiting drug options for consumers.

On State Street, just steps from the Capitol, another large group waved to cars and held signs urging the repeal of the state’s new “cashless bail” system, which eliminated bail for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies beginning January 1.

And on the second floor of the statehouse, a group of environmental advocates staged a “die-in” and called for a moratorium on any new energy projects in New York that involve fossil fuels.

But inside the Convention Center, there was continued applause for Cuomo’s agenda with the theme this year being “Make Progress Happen.”

“We are idealists and realists, dreamers and doers,” Cuomo said. “New York is called upon to lead. We are the progressive capital of the nation. ”

Environmental Initiatives

Cuomo called the current environmental crisis the “most pressing challenge of our generation.”

The governor said the state will prioritize more renewable projects, new power transmission lines from upstate to downstate, and an expansion of electric vehicles. He also proposed a $3 billion bond act he wants on the ballot this November to fund projects such as habitat restorations and fighting invasive species.

Building on the recent law to ban single-use plastic bags, Cuomo wants to now ban single-use Styrofoam food containers by restaurants, caterers, food trucks, retail food stores, delis and grocery stores. Additionally, he would also ban the sale of expanded polystyrene packaging materials known as packing peanuts and authorize the Department of Environmental Conservation to review and take action to limit or ban other packaging material if they find a significant environmental impact. This would be the strongest statewide ban in the United States and would go into effect by January 1, 2022.

“No good policy will be worth a damn if we don’t have a planet to live on,” Cuomo said.

Elections and Good Government

Cuomo promised to introduce legislation that would trigger automatic manual recounts in close elections and establish statewide uniform recount procedures. Current law does not require automatic vote recounts, even when election results are extremely close. Moreover, Cuomo said, the vast majority of county boards of elections have not implemented such requirements on their own, and while it can be compelled in court, it is rarely done.

Cuomo also proposed a “Nothing to Hide” law that would require all elected representatives and government officials to disclose their taxes if they make more than $100,000 a year.

“Let’s lead by example,” Cuomo said, referring to President Donald Trump’s refusal to release his own tax records. “Let’s show them ours.”

Health and Safety

Cuomo wants to prevent convicted sex offenders from using social media accounts, dating apps and video game chat functions to exploit children. All sex offenders would be required to disclose their screen name for each social media account, dating or gaming app they are on to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Currently, they are only required to provide the email address they use for those accounts.

DCJS will send this list to any provider that the offender discloses, and the provider will be required to review this data, develop policies on how to use it, and release this policy publicly to their users.

The new legislation would also make it a crime for convicted sex offenders to misrepresent themselves online.

Cuomo said he will also advance legislation authorizing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to prohibit repeat violators and Level 3 sex offend from using MTA services for a period of three years. This proposal is in response to a number of recent MTA incidents involving repeat sex offenders.

“Subway cars should not be a breeding ground for predators,” Cuomo said. “You should be able to commute to work without being groped.”

Gun Control

A new law proposed Wednesday would place a new restriction on who can own guns in New York and another would limit who can purchase or sell gun parts.

New York law currently prohibits individuals from obtaining a gun license if they commit certain New York misdemeanors that are deemed “serious offenses.” However, the law does not prohibit individuals from obtaining a New York gun license after committing comparable misdemeanors in another state. Cuomo wants to amend the state’s Penal Law to prevent such individuals from obtaining a gun license in New York.

Additionally, Cuomo hopes to ban individuals from obtaining major firearm components online; instead, requiring that they be shipped to a licensed gun dealer where they would be picked up in person. The goal is to reduce “do-it-yourself firearms” that do not contain serial numbers and can be built by those who may not be authorized to own a gun.

Economic Development

One of the more ambitious projects presented Wednesday is a redesign of the state’s canal system to boost tourism, mitigate flooding, enhance irrigation, promote recreational fishing and restore wetlands.

The $300 million project will start this year with $100 million in economic development funds for communities along the Canal and another $65 million for an icebreaker, dam upgrades and an early warning system to alleviate ice jams and flooding that commonly plagues the Scotia and Schenectady areas of the Canal.

The remaining $135 million will be allocated to research recommended by the Reimagine Task Force, as well as to solutions related to flood mitigation, invasive species prevention and ecosystem restoration.

The new Canal would include pedestrian bridges and parks, canal-side housing, a whitewater rapids course, restored wetlands and new recreational fishing areas.

A rendering of the re-imagined canal

The governor will also convene a panel of engineers to reexamine past high-speed rail plans, question and rethink every assumption and method, and recommend a new plan for how to build faster, greener, more reliable high-speed rail in New York.

Gov. Cuomo proposed a number of regional economic development plans. Those include:

  • $14 million project to build a new Mid-Station Lodge at Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort replacing the structure that was destroyed by fire on November 30, 2019.
  • $9.4 million in new grants to the Village of Lake George in Warren County to repair and upgrade its wastewater collection infrastructure and preserve the water quality and natural beauty of Lake George.
  • $9 million to establish a drone experimentation and test facility “skydome” in an unused hangar at Griffiss International Airport in Rome, Oneida County.
  • Transforming Buffalo’s North Aud Block at Canalside to accommodate new residences, restaurants and shops, as well as added parking.
    Millions in tax credits to help three Rochester technology companies expand and create new jobs
  • $11.4 million for land to expand and add buffers to six parks in the Hudson Valley, including Minnewaska and Sterling Forest.
  • Transforming Pier 76 on the West Side of Manhattan into a park near the Javits Center and Hudson Yards
  • Acquiring the block south of Penn Station to create an expanded, remodeled and interconnected train and subway complex with at least 8 new tracks to reduce congestion and wait times inside the station.

The governor is also encouraging the Legislature to make the “Buy American” Act permanent, which would require all structural steel and structural iron used in all state road and bridge construction projects with contracts worth more than $1 million to be made in America. The current law is set to expire in April 2020.

Consumer Protection

Another proposal unveiled Wednesday would require the thousands of debt collectors that contact New Yorkers every day to be licensed by the State Department of Financial Services to ensure they adhere to strict standards of conduct. This would also give the state the authority to investigate debt collectors and pull the license of bad actors.

The proposal will also codify a Federal Trade Commission rule that prohibits confessions of judgment, which give lenders the power to go into court, get a judgment from a clerk and empty the consumer’s bank account.

Cuomo hopes to pass “net neutrality” laws that would prevent the blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of online content and give consumers the right to hold internet service providers accountable for creating a tiered internet.

Another proposal is to cap insulin co-payments at $100 per month for insured patients to help address the rising cost of insulin that has resulted in diabetes patients rationing, skipping doses and not filling prescriptions.

The State Department of Financial Services would be give the power to investigate and hold drug manufacturers accountable for unjustifiable, exorbitant increases in drug prices.

Finally, the proposal would establish a commission of experts to study the feasibility and benefits of a Canadian drug importation program and submit a plan to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for review.

Another goal is to create a consumer-friendly website, called NYHealthcareCompare, where New Yorkers can easily compare the cost and quality of health care procedures at hospitals around the state.

Equal Rights

Currently, the state Constitution’s Equal Rights Amendment — adopted in 1938 — only prohibits discrimination based on race, color, creed, or religion. Gov. Cuomo will seek to add sex as a protected class to Section 11 of Article I, and push for the addition of other categories, including ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity as protected groups.

Cuomo also said he will work to eliminate the “pink tax” which refers to the higher cost for consumer and health products marketed to women, compared to comparable products aimed at men.

According to the data cited by the governor, women’s merchandise costs 7 percent on average more than similar items for men, with personal care products for women found to be priced 13 percent higher than men’s products.

Because these products are purchased frequently, the study estimates that the compounding differences translate into a significant financial burden for women over the cost of their lifetime.

“Pink or blue, the price should be the same.”

Other goals include an “Excelsior Banking Network,” aimed at increasing access to safe, affordable bank accounts and small-dollar loans in under-served, low-income communities, lifting New York’s ban on gestational surrogacy to help support LGBTQ couples and those struggling with fertility, and reducing homelessness.

“We will do this agenda,” Cuomo said. “It is hard. It is always hard. But we will get it done.”