Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered a broad election-year agenda in a State of the State speech Wednesday that promoted a property tax freeze, borrowing $2 billion for high-tech classrooms and an aggressive rebuilding plan around New York.
But it was the last few minutes of the hourlong address that caught the attention of the Orthodox activists who attended the annual Albany tradition.
In a speech avidly analyzed for what is mentioned and how much time the governor spends on any specific item, Cuomo devoted about five minutes to express his displeasure why no state official was aware of a pervasive anti-Semitism in the Pine Bush school district, even though a lawsuit had been filed by parents a year before.
Cuomo said that he called the state’s department of education, state police and the department of human rights. None of them were aware of the allegations, laid out in an extensive New York Times article during the summer.
“All New Yorkers must be able to attend school without fear of discrimination or harassment,” Cuomo said.
For now on, promised the governor, “If a school official in the State of New York is aware of a pattern of racial or religious discrimination or harassment, that state official is under an affirmative duty to notify the State Education Department and the police or that state official is no longer a state official.”
Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, a vice president of Agudah, told Hamodia that he and Leon Goldenberg, an Agudah board member, “were both pleasantly surprised that the governor chose to devote a significant part of his annual State of the State message to express his outrage to the anti-Semitic incident. It was truly a very moving part of the speech.”
Both Rabbi Lefkowitz and Mr. Goldenberg were in Albany for the address.
Agudah later sent out a statement, calling the denunciation of racism “perhaps the high moment of the governor’s address.”
“Clearly,” they wrote, “Gov. Cuomo was speaking from the depths of his heart when he articulated his zero-tolerance policy for such incidents. For that we are deeply grateful.”
Jeff Leb, the state’s political director for OU Advocacy, applauded Cuomo “for his ongoing vigilance on this issue, for his ‘zero tolerance’ policy on anti-Semitism, and for proposing a law that will require schools to report discrimination and harassment,” said.
State Sen. Simcha Felder said he was “heartened” by Cuomo’s language.
“This sends the right message that hatred and bullying of any kind will not be tolerated in our schools,” said Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who caucuses with the GOP majority.
Felder, who represents Boro Park and Flatbush, was selected to deliver the message to the governor that the Senate had convened.
Cuomo is seeking a second term this year and the speech gave him a high-profile forum to promote his first three years while unveiling a series of proposals intended to please both social progressives and financial conservatives. The speech to state lawmakers and invited guests at a packed convention hall near the state Capitol touched on both corporate tax cuts and an expanded youth works program, export programs and medical marijuana.
“We have much more to do, but we are energized by a new strength, a new pride and a new confidence. And let us build on that record of success,” Cuomo told a largely enthusiastic crowd.
The governor had already unveiled a sweeping $2 billion tax relief proposal this week that includes a cut in corporate tax rates, property tax rebates for homeowners in municipalities that meet certain thresholds, and a special tax rebate for New York City renters. He had also sketched out New York’s post-Superstorm Sandy plans to fortify coastal infrastructure.
Cuomo wants to consolidate the more than 10,000 local governments, and use the money saved to lower property taxes, of which New York has the highest in the nation.
Using the $16 billion in federal money allocated to pay for Superstorm Sandy repairs, Cuomo wants to spend $5 billion to plug all subway openings to prevent flooding during natural disasters.
He also called for a law that any teenager convicted twice for drunk driving to lose their license for five years. If they get a third conviction, Cuomo said, they should lose their driving permits permanently.
Teenagers caught texting while driving would lose their license for a year.
Cuomo proposed a $2 billion bond referendum for schools. If approved by voters in November, schools could use the money for wireless internet connections, tablets to replace textbooks, interactive white boards and new pre-kindergarten classrooms.
The governor said “it is time to fulfill the state’s goal” of providing access for all children to all-day pre-kindergarten, but he didn’t mention how to pay for it. Universal pre-kindergarten is a signature proposal for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who clapped along with officials at Cuomo’s statement of support.
The governor said his medical marijuana initiative will help New Yorkers suffering from cancer and other severe ailments. He plans to allow 20 hospitals statewide to prescribe marijuana to patients with cancer and some other severe ailments. Cuomo’s medical marijuana plan will be enacted by administratively, not through legislation, and will be more restrictive than programs in some other states like California.
The limited plan was greeted by some in Cuomo’s Democratic base, though advocates want a more sweeping legalization of marijuana. Opponents say that while it heals pain, marijuana is addictive and stays in the bloodstream for weeks.
In the speech, Cuomo also announced new initiatives designed to attract more international business to the state and to increase exports, a timetable for casino development, starting with the appointment of a sitting board this month.
Cuomo said that he wants the Metro-North Railroad to expand to New York City’s Penn Station following recommendations made in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
Some of the bolder proposals call for establishing the nation’s first college dedicated to homeland security, something Cuomo said New York City’s former top cop Raymond Kelly has already agreed to be a special adviser to. The new State University of New York venture calls for the college to offer degrees and certificates in fields like emergency preparedness, homeland security and cybersecurity.
Complaining that LaGuardia and Kennedy International airports are busy but rate poorly in design and passenger experience, Cuomo said that the state will take over construction projects from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
With a series of public corruption cases roiling the Legislature, Cuomo called for increased penalties for official misconduct and tighter disclosure rules that require greater disclosure of conflicts of interest.
Cuomo will have to shepherd his proposals through a Legislature that remains in split control. The State of the State acts as the opening shot of the annual legislative session, which will go on for months.