With State in Crisis, Cuomo Outlines Plan to ‘Win the Covid War’

ALBANY, N.Y. — Facing a daunting budget crisis and a surging second wave of the coronavirus, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday unveiled his vision of New York’s agenda for the year, focused on righting the state’s finances and its citizens’ health in a moment of profound concern about the nation’s well-being.

Speaking from a nearly empty room in the State Capitol — the ceremonial War Room just steps from his office — Mr. Cuomo unveiled a seven-point plan for the state, with many of the points touching on the coronavirus and its ramifications.

“We are hurt, we are frustrated, and we are in mourning, we are anxious, we are shocked that an invisible enemy could wreak such death and destruction,” he said, adding that the disease created a “low tide in America,” exposing political, racial and social divisions.

Still, Mr. Cuomo said, “New York is different.”

“We will win the Covid war,” he added. “And we will learn and grow from the experience.”

To that end, Mr. Cuomo unveiled a series of proposals to fortify the health care vulnerabilities laid bare by the coronavirus, vowing to provide incentives for the manufacturing of medical supplies in New York to diminish the reliance on China. The governor also announced the creation of a state public health corps of 1,000 fellows and a program to train 100,000 citizens as health care emergency volunteers.

In recent days, Mr. Cuomo has also put forth proposals to expand access to telemedicine services in the state, extend a moratorium on commercial evictions for businesses affected by the coronavirus and create a new office to combat domestic violence, which has increased during the crisis.

Considering the circumstances, the governor’s address was perhaps his most momentous since he took office in 2011 in the face of a nearly $10 billion deficit.

This year, the projected revenue shortfall of $15 billion is the largest in state history, amid widespread economic carnage, Mr. Cuomo said. “Businesses have been lost, lifetime savings have been exhausted, personal debt has mounted,” he said.

The governor, a Democrat now in his 11th year in office, had already presented proposals focused on both the bedrock of democracy — its elections — as well its bottom line: Mr. Cuomo wants to legalize recreational marijuana and mobile sports betting, aiming to inject new revenue into the state’s hollowed-out coffers.

The climate surrounding the speech was far different from that of previous years, especially in Washington, which is in the midst of profound transition and turmoil.

For the first time in four years, New York officials can expect more help from federal officials: The president-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democrat-led Congress and the looming ascension of Senator Chuck Schumer, a Brooklyn native, to majority leader, all bode well for the state. The governor and other state leaders have expressed hope that the state’s miserable economic outlook — a projected deficit of more than $60 billion over the next four years — will be reversed by a federal bailout and other friendly policies.

Mr. Cuomo has railed for years against the fiscal approach of the Trump administration, which enacted a cap on the deduction on state and local property taxes in 2017, and the outgoing majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who thwarted several attempts to provide direct aid to states reeling from the impact of the pandemic.

“Washington has savaged us for four years,” he said on Monday, noting that New York gives more money to the federal government in taxes than it takes. “We expect basic fairness from Washington. Finally.”

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The governor said last week he rewrote his address after Democrats won a pair of Senate races in Georgia, effectively giving the party control of Congress. The news gave Mr. Cuomo increased confidence that the state could avoid steep tax increases and spending cuts, though his stance has worried budget watchdogs who see it as an excuse for the state to spend more without addressing its structural problems.

The governor’s State of the State address was the first of four policy speeches he plans this week, and he promised to announce more details about economic stimulus soon. He made clear that the state needed “to jump-start the economy now,” promising a New Deal-style program to invest in infrastructure, including air, rail, and road projects as well as housing.

Speaking broadly, the governor said the state had to seize on the economic opportunities of a “post-Covid” world and announced his support for converting vacant commercial space to provide affordable housing and fight homelessness.

There were also smaller-bore projects, some of which the governor has already debuted: On Monday, Mr. Cuomo said he wanted the High Line — a pedestrian walkway in Manhattan on a former elevated train track — extended to connect to the newly opened Moynihan Train Hall, a project that he hoped would spur development in the surrounding neighborhoods, already some of the city’s richest.

The governor’s address comes two years after Democrats retook full control of state government in 2019, when the Legislature had one the most productive sessions in recent memory, passing a flurry of progressive priorities that had long been stymied by Republicans who controlled the State Senate. By contrast, many of the objectives Mr. Cuomo unveiled last year were derailed or overshadowed by the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

This year, the governor’s arguably two most popular proposals — the legalization of pot and mobile sports betting — will require resolving disagreements with legislative leaders over how best to implement them.

Legalizing recreational marijuana, for example, is expected to generate billions of dollars in economic activity and about $300 million in tax revenue in its first year, but legalization efforts have previously fallen apart following disputes over who should get licenses and how to spend the tax money. To be sure, marijuana tax dollars would not immediately solve the state’s budget crisis; much of the money wouldn’t materialize until years down the road.

Mr. Cuomo long opposed legalization — he described weed as a “gateway drug” just a few years ago — but his position evolved in 2018 as neighboring states spearheaded similar efforts and Mr. Cuomo faced a primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, a progressive who made marijuana legalization a tenet of her campaign.

Since the discovery of the virus in New York last March, Mr. Cuomo has been a near-constant presence in public, giving almost-daily briefings on the virus’s toll — no state has more deaths than New York — and a cascade of other crises, including the demonstrations over racial inequality last summer.

The governor is now trying to remedy a sluggish vaccine rollout in New York, which has seen sharp increases in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths during the worst period yet in the coronavirus crisis. Mr. Cuomo has harshly criticized the federal response and said his own government’s vaccine plan is being hamstrung by the limited supply of vaccine to the states.

New York officials are now hopeful that a Biden administration and a Democratic-led Congress will deliver significant aid to backfill the budget, increase the state’s Medicaid reimbursement rate and pave the way for infrastructure projects like the extension of the Second Avenue Subway and the Gateway Tunnel project.

At the same time, it remains to be seen how newly emboldened Democrats in the State Legislature will use their veto-proof supermajorities to pursue far-reaching proposals that Mr. Cuomo might be reluctant to embrace, like new taxes on the wealthy, reforms to solitary confinement in prisons or the creation of a single-payer health care system in New York.

The supermajorities — won by New York Democrats even as Republicans fared well in other statehouse races across the country — have effectively banished the Republicans to observers in the Capitol and could diminish the power of Mr. Cuomo, who has been the most powerful player in state politics for a decade.

Mr. Cuomo’s own profile has grown during the coronavirus crisis — and he has repeatedly rebuffed suggestions that he holds higher political aspirations or will join the Biden administration. Still, his speech had multiple national overtones, decrying the violence at the Capitol last week and calling on residents to continue to be vigilant about coronavirus safeguards.

“This is a national crisis,” Mr. Cuomo said. “But New York will lead.”

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