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Cuomo's State of State plans take him away from Capitol

File Photo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2016 State of the State remarks to members of the legislature in Albany.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is doing something different with the State of the State this year. Instead of delivering a speech in Albany to lawmakers who will have to approve his proposals, he’s giving six mini speeches in three days all around the state. Legislative leaders will not be attending.

For nearly a century, the State of the State was held in early January, with traditions including a cordial reception at the governor’s mansion and a lavish brunch by the Assembly speaker.

But at noon Jan. 4, the day that the State of the State speech normally would have been given in the Assembly chamber, Cuomo was nowhere near the Capitol as the Senate and Assembly gaveled in for the new year.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie gave his own State of the State message, laying out Assembly Democrats’ priorities for the session. The leader of the Senate also gave a message.

Cuomo was in New York City at that very same hour, talking to a group of business leaders and explaining why he’s not giving a traditional speech to the legislators.

Cuomo’s been inching away from the tradition in recent years, first holding the speech in a convention center controlled by the executive branch, then delaying the event until later in January, combining it with his budget presentation. He’s now scheduled six separate speeches in several regions of the state.

“Why?” Cuomo asked rhetorically. “Because there’s too much to do in one 40-minute segment in Albany. We have so much going on in this state.”

Cuomo said under the constitution, the governor doesn’t have to give a speech at all; he need only provide a written “memo” to lawmakers, which his office said he’ll produce very soon. He said it was former Gov. Al Smith who in 1923 decided to deliver a speech in the Assembly chambers, where Smith once served.

“Because he was from the Assembly, and you always want to play to a favorable audience,” Cuomo explained.

Having a receptive crowd might be the key to Cuomo’s change in plans this year.

The governor had a falling out with the legislature in December. Negotiations to hold a special session that would have included pay raises for senators and Assembly members failed. They have not seen their salaries increased in 18 years. There were rumors of a boycott of a State of the State speech, which would have left embarrassingly empty seats. In 2016, Cuomo endured a heckling from Assemblyman Charles Barron, who has long had differences with the governor.

“You were wrong!” Barron shouted on Jan. 13, 2016, as Cuomo, from the podium, tried to quell the outburst.

The six mini-speeches outside the Capitol have left lawmakers feeling angry and slighted. All four major and minority party legislative leaders say they aren’t going to any of the speeches, even ones held in their home regions.

Senate Leader John Flanagan, who’s had a rocky relationship with Cuomo lately, doesn’t think much of Cuomo’s statewide tour.

“The State of the State should be delivered in the Assembly chamber,” said Flanagan. “I’ve always believed in that tradition.”

A spokesman said Flanagan was invited to the address in his home region of Long Island, but declined because it coincides with a session day scheduled months ago.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie also is not going to Cuomo’s speeches. The one in New York City, where Heastie’s from, will occur on a session day as well.

But the speaker tried to downplay any ill will the governor’s move might be causing.

“What’s more important for us is what’s in the message,” Heastie said. “And not where the message is delivered.”

Cuomo will be giving an address in Albany, though it won’t be at the Capitol, but at the state university campus a few miles away. And it will be on a day when the legislature already has adjourned for the week.

There’s another reason the governor might want to take the emphasis off the Capitol. It’s been the focus of several major corruption scandals, including two that led to jail time for both former legislative leaders. And nine Cuomo associates, including a former top aide and the former architect of his upstate economic development programs, are facing multiple charges, including bribery and bid-rigging.

But despite the mutual State of the State boycott between Cuomo and state lawmakers, they will all have to work together eventually on issues like passing the budget, which is expected to have a deficit, and perhaps implementing new laws — to make college tuition free for more students, and allowing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft in more places in New York.

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.