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Cuomo addresses hate crimes, legalizing cannabis, in State of the State speech

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his annual State of the State message in Albany Wednesday

There was a somber tone to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 10th State of the State message in a year where the state is facing a $6 billion deficit and reeling from a recent spate of hate crimes, including a stabbing incident at a rabbi’s house outside New York City.

“It is going to be a challenging year,” Cuomo said Wednesday.

Cuomo said recent events have been frightening, including an earthquake in Puerto Rico, deep and bitter political divides, and the attack on Orthodox Jews celebrating Hanukkah that injured five, one severely.

Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg, whose own son was injured in the attack, was a special guest at the speech, and he delivered the blessing.

“I will never forget the horror of that night,” Rottenberg said. “But I will also never forget how we continued to celebrate after that attack. How we continued to rejoice in the miracle of Hanukkah.” 

Cuomo drew cheers from the audience of lawmakers, lobbyists and state judges when he outlined his proposal to create a new crime of domestic terrorism. He said it would give law enforcement more tools to fight crimes motivated by hate.

“And send the strongest message across this state and nation, New York will not stand by when our people are being victimized and killed by hate,” Cuomo said.

In a year with a multibillion-dollar budget gap, the governor focused on items that will help pay for themselves, including a $3 billion environmental bond act, dubbed the “Restore Mother Nature Bond Act.” It would repair areas damaged by recent floods including along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, and protect public lands against climate damage in the future. 

Cuomo also laid out a plan to legalize the adult recreational use of marijuana in New York. He would create an Office of Cannabis Management to establish stringent safety and quality controls and better regulate other hemp and CBD products.

Cuomo said legalizing cannabis could bring in $300 million in new tax revenues. He said part of that money should go to communities disproportionately affected by the decades-long criminalization of marijuana. 

The governor also proposes creating a SUNY Global Cannabis Center to do research and help determine healthy and safe dosing of the drug.

Despite the deficit, the governor is proposing cutting taxes for small businesses and the middle class, although he did not provide details of how to pay for them. 

He did acknowledge that spending on Medicaid, which accounts for the bulk of the gap, has grown too large lately, and he said the system needs some restructuring.  

He hinted that local governments, who have seen their share of Medicaid costs capped by the state in recent years, might have to pay more going forward. 

“We’re paying $177 million on behalf of Erie (County) $175 million on behalf of Westchester (County) and $2 billion on behalf of the City of New York,” Cuomo said, “to cover their local costs.”

Andrew Rein, with the watchdog group Citizens Budget Commission, said it would not be wise for the governor to undo what has been considered a successful program. 

“That would be a reversal of a great element of progress that he’s made,” Rein said. “The devil will be in the details when the budget comes out.”  

The speech received positive reviews from Democrats, who are in the majority in the Legislature. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said it was a “good Democratic, progressive message.” 

“Touching on issues that are important to our Democratic hearts, speaking about poverty, health care, opioid (crisis) education,” Heastie said. “It’s a good starting point.” 

The leader of the state’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, holds a very different view.

In a rebuttal video, Langworthy blamed many of what he said are New York’s problems on Democratic rule, including tax rates that are among the highest in the nation, and the outmigration of more than 1 million New Yorkers in the past decade.  

“We’ve gone from the Empire State to the vampire state,” Langworthy said.

And state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, a Republican from the Buffalo area, said he would have liked to hear more about the governor’s plans to amend a controversial bail reform law. That has ended cash bail for most crimes and has led to some repeat offenders, including a serial bank robber, to be released on their own recognizance.

“That’s the No. 1 thing I’m hearing about right now from my constituents,” said Gallivan. “There’s no question that people across the state are concerned, and we need to deal with it.”

Cuomo said earlier in the week that he was open to changing the law. But supporters in the Legislature have said the law is only a few days old, and needs to be given a chance to work.

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.