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Cuomo's State of the State speech -- ethics reforms, homeless programs, and a brief interruption


Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his State of the State message and $143 billion budget spending plan, which includes nearly $1 billion more for schools next year and ethics reforms.

Cuomo saved his plans for education and ethics reform for his speech, after already rolling out a massive infrastructure project that he says would make the late Gov.Nelson Rockefeller jealous, calling for a statewide $15 minimum wage, and numerous other proposals.

“There is no doubt that this is an ambitious agenda,” Cuomo said.  “What else did you think that I was going to give to you?”

On ethics, the governor made no direct mention of the scandals that led to the arrest and conviction of both leaders of the legislature on corruption charges, though he did say 2015 was a “tough, ugly” year on many levels. He proposed changing some of the practices that factored heavily in the trials, including closing the LLC loophole, which allows corporations to form Limited Liability Corporations and donate unlimited amounts of money to candidates. Cuomo also wants to limit lawmakers’ outside income to 15 percent of their $79,500 base salary.

“I propose we adopt the congressional system of limiting outside income for legislators,” said Cuomo. “It’s proven. It’s cleaner. And it’s a more effective model that the people of this nation have confidence in.”

The proposal received tepid applause, as did calls for voluntary public campaign financing, and holding a constitutional convention. .

Cuomo toned down his rhetoric on education policy, in contrast to past years. He did not disparage what he’s called the “education bureaucracy,” and instead said he wants to adopt his own Common Core commission proposals, which retreat from the governor’s former stance tying teacher performance views more closely to standardized tests. Cuomo blamed the State Education Department, known as SED, which he does not control, for the troubles, including a student boycott of the exams.

“We urge SED to do it right this time,” Cuomo said.

The governor called for $2 billion more in school funding spread out over two years, and $100 million dollars to turn struggling schools into community schools with expanded hours and services. He continues to call for an education tax credit that would help large donors give money to private and some public schools.

The speech, which also served as a budget presentation, was light on details of how the governor will pay for all of his programs. Senate Deputy Majority Leader John DeFranciso is skeptical.

“There are a lot of dollars being spent in that budget,” said DeFrancisco. “And quite frankly, I don’t see how it comes under the 2 percent (spending) cap that we’ve been complying with.”

Government reform groups were heartened by the governor’s ethics agenda. Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says she hopes the governor fights for actual passage of the measures.

“That’s been the problem all along,” Bartoletti said. “He hasn’t used political capital, he hasn’t used the bully pulpit to do this.”

Other lawmakers oppose the governor’s call to strictly limit outside income. Senate Leader John Flanagan , says the legislature is meant to be part time.

“Having people with diverse backgrounds, who have an understanding of the real world, has some extraordinary and inherent value,” Flanagan said.

And he called public financing of campaigns “a waste of the taxpayers money.”

Cuomo’s State of the State address was briefly interrupted by a heckler. It was not an angry member of the public however, but a member of his own party, a Democratic assemblyman.

Assemblyman Charles Barron, of Brooklyn, known for his outspoken ways, got up and began yelling during the governor’s speech about the state’s failure to obey a 10 year old court order to fully fund schools, and increasing homelessness among other grievances.

The Governor kept his cool.

“All right Assemblyman sit down,” Cuomo said. “Everybody heard you. Everybody heard you.”

Barron was led out of the hall, and the crowd began to cheer loudly to cover up the disturbance.

“Just because you yell, doesn’t mean you’re right, Cuomo said, loudly.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was asked whether he might reprimand the outspoken Assemblyman. Heastie says no. 

“Charles is Charles, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Heastie said. 

Cuomo in his budget proposes spending $20 billion over the next several years to build permanent and temporary shelter for the homeless. The governor also gave new powers to the state and New York City comptrollers to audio homeless shelters, and says those that are dirty or poorly run will be closed.

At the end of the nearly two hour presentation, Cuomo spoke of his personal troubles in the past year -- the death of his father, and the bout with breast cancer of his girlfriend, celebrity chef Sandra Lee. He says the experiences have led him to endorse paid family leave, financed by employers, so New Yorkers can spend time to care for sick and dying loved ones. He also will fund a $90 million program to expand breast cancer screenings.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.