The Island Now

Columnist Karen Rubin: Cuomo’s bold vision for New York

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Posted: Thursday, January 17, 2013 5:42 pm

It was remarkable - possibly unprecedented - that Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent out legions of his cabinet to fan out across the state to give localized versions of his State of the State message. Bringing the message home, as it were, inspiring ownership and participation at a more local level that the state capital.

Perhaps even more remarkable was that Cuomo spent minimal time talking about the past achievement in putting the state on more solid fiscal footing, and instead laid out one of the most extensive, comprehensive, and active agendas of any governor, arguably since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I imagine few people realize that much of the progressive economic development programs FDR implemented during the New Deal was piloted in New York State (I learned this during my visit to Hyde Park), and perhaps Cuomo is doing the same here for an ultimate run for the biggest prize of all, the Presidency.

Regardless, so much of what Cuomo is proposing is absolutely on target - so much so that you say, “It’s about time. What took so long.”

It’s about time that the state created business incubators, and encouraged symbiosis between academia and commercial enterprises.

It’s about time that New York really invested in renewable energy and did all that it could to reduce the use of fossil fuels that release carbon into the atmosphere. Cuomo’s call to create a network of electric “filling stations” (recharge stations), and to incentivize homes and businesses to install solar panels is bold, but also practical, and to lead the way, he appointed an energy czar, Richard Kauffman, who is one of the foremost experts on renewable energy and, more importantly, renewable-energy financing.

Cuomo’s proposals for election and campaign finance reform, including his promise for “The Nation’s Most Aggressive Disclosure Law,” public financing of state elections, early voting (finally!), and more transparency including OPEN NY, a single-stop electronic portal to provide public access to statewide and agency-level data, reports, statistics, are most encouraging.

How exciting was it to hear Cuomo say he wants New York to be the model, the leader in the nation, on gun violence protection legislation, including enacting the toughest ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the nation and taking steps that guns don’t wind up in the hands of people who should have no right to have them? That is particularly bold for a guy who clearly has ambition to ascent to the White House. (At I write this, state Senator Jack Martins seemed to be weaseling out, with that old NRA saw, “this type of legislation only serves to further regulate legal, law-abiding gun owners and ignores the criminals with illegal guns. The fact is, those who are committing the violence care little about the law.)

And New York would remind the country that we were the birthplace for the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, by enacting Cuomo’s 10-point Women’s Equality Act that includes passage of the Women’s Reproductive Health Act. (Wow).

Cuomo’s selection for the Long Island presentations (in Suffolk and Nassau) was significant: Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority.  I saw him give his testimony at the Moreland Commission hearing at SUNY Old Westbury, in which he described the methodical process he used as the storm was barreling down on Long Island - lining up outside workers to come in and restore power, for example. All I could think of was why he was the one to think of what needed to be done, while the LIPA management seemed to have no clue.

The speech took place in North Hempstead’s brand new Yes We Can Community Center, in Westbury - an absolutely magnificent structure that shows respect and pride of a community, and is exactly what government should be doing at the state and federal level: building things that improve society, investing in the future, investing in communities.

“This building is a symbol of what government can do when we talk to the community, participate, partner with leaders at different levels,” said Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman. “We took this piece of property, built a multi-million dollar facility – which serves as our command center during storms, and is one of the few Platinum LEED-certified in business New York State – in conjunction with community, county and state.

Not surprisingly, Quiniones had to field questions about LIPA and about the growing call from Cuomo and the Moreland Commission to privatize LIPA (more on this in future column) - something that Cuomo did not specifically address in his speech, though energy, and particularly clean, renewable energy figured large. (Didn’t we get LIPA and National Grid because of the failure of LILCO? And haven’t we been inexplicably handicapped by the Shoreham debt ever since, which is why LIPA had the most absurd management structure ever conceived? How is it that banks got bailed out of trillions of dollars of toxic assets, but no one could figure out how to extricate innocent Long Islanders of Shoreham debt?).

Of greatest importance to Long Island are the initiatives under Responding to the Crisis.

“In just two years, New Yorkers have witnessed firsthand the destructive force of three powerful storms that have crippled the state: Irene, Lee and most recently Sandy. Each has taken an immeasurable toll on communities. Precious lives have been lost, and homes and businesses destroyed. Extreme weather is the new normal,” Cuomo said.

The governor outlined a series of proposals for the state to fortify and upgrade the systems that can paralyze us when they fail during an emergency, as well as act to tackle the reality of a changing climate. 

Redesign our power system: The electrical power grid and the structures that control it must undergo a fundamental redesign that improves performances and protects ratepayers.

Strengthen public service commission’s regulatory and enforcement oversight: Based on the Moreland Commission’s recommendations, the governor is proposing giving the Public Service Commission the regulatory and enforcement teeth it needs to improve oversight and regulation of the state’s utilities.

Abolish the Long Island Power Authority: Hurricane Sandy revealed systemic flaws and weaknesses in LIPA’s structure. As recommended by the Moreland Commission, the Governor proposes privatizing Long Island service which will be overseen by a newly empowered PSC. The new structure must protect ratepayers.

Lower the regional greenhouse gas emissions cap: Nine states including New York participate in the CO2 cap and trade program. The current cap is 165 million tons of CO2 but that is well above the current emissions level of 91 million tons of CO2. Cuomo is proposing lowering the cap to a level that guarantees we will reduce emissions below current levels.

Increase alternative local renewable power sources: To reduce dependence on centralized power plants and avoid outages, the governor proposed increasing the use of alternative local power (distributed generation of electricity) using renewable sources, natural gas, and energy storage. (Yes!!!)

Provide assistance to property owners to mitigate or sell properties in vulnerable areas. 

Ensure that health-care facilities are resilient: health-care facility applicants would be required to address the risks associated with being in a vulnerable location.

Harden our infrastructure to better withstand future major storms: Make New York Harbor more resilient by conserving and rebuilding natural systems, and by building barriers; flood-proof subways and bus depots; harden the fuel delivery system by building in redundancies into the fuel system, require gas stations in strategic locations to have on-site back-up power capacity; harden public utilities; strengthen wastewater infrastructure

Effective emergency response: Preparing for disasters and responding to emergency events requires collaboration and coordination among local, State and federal authorities; non-governmental organizations; and the private sector, as well as skilled first responders and a network of civilians ready to help their fellow citizens during an emergency.

World-class emergency response network: The state will create uniform training and protocols for all emergency personnel, including a SUNY/CUNY program certificate for all emergency workers in the state.

Specialized training for the national guard

Statewide volunteer network to mobilize and organize volunteers based on their skills, interests and resources.

Civilian emergency response corps: To ensure that the necessary skills and expertise are available and can be mobilized to effectively support rapid restoration of essential services and infrastructure, the governor proposed a civilian emergency response corps made up of technical and trades personnel - including electricians, pipefitters, line workers, landscapers, public works personnel, civil engineers and debris removal tradespeople - who can be trained, certified, credentialed and deployed to perform disaster response and recovery related tasks as part of a well-coordinated public/private-sector partnership.

Private sector emergency response task force: The governor proposed creating a standing task force made up of chief logistics officers from key industry sectors that will create a plan in advance for the distribution of food, water and other supplies and execute the plan in a declared emergency.

Citizen education campaign: The campaign would focus on preparing all New Yorkers as “in-house first responders.”

Ensure that vulnerable populations can receive help in an emergency: The use of voluntary and effective vulnerable population databases will be expanded so first responders, outreach workers, and healthcare and human services personnel can find and serve those who may need assistance before, during, and after emergencies, including senior citizens, persons with disabilities, infants and children, and people with chronic medical conditions.

Communicating with New Yorkers in an emergency: Cell phone networks and other communications systems must be strengthened to ensure that first responders and citizens never lose the ability to communicate fully and instantly. In addition, New York will develop a program to allow mass text messages to be sent to all wireless phones in a chosen geographic area. In addition, the state will explore establishing a one-stop disaster recovery communications hub that is integrated with social networking, mobile messaging and chat tools - using all available means to reach New Yorkers.

With the Republicans in Congress likely to frustrate any real progress in keeping military-style weapons off the streets, Cuomo’s proposed Safe and Fair Gun Policy, warrants further mention, particularly because of Martins objections:

Pass the toughest assault weapons ban in the country: New York’s ban on assault weapons is so riddled with loopholes and so difficult to understand that it has become virtually unenforceable. In order to fix this problem, the governor proposed tightening our assault weapons ban and eliminating large capacity magazines regardless of date of manufacture.

Prevent private sales to prohibited persons: The governor would expand the state’s mandate background checks for individuals buying guns from dealers or at gun shows to include when a gun is sold privately. 

Enhance penalties for those who illegally buy guns, for those who use guns on school property, and for those who engage in violent and serious drug-related gang activity.

Reporting by mental health professionals: when a firearm owner is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others, that risk may be reported and the gun removed by law enforcement authorities. 

One state, one standard: Currently, licenses for handguns are issued by the county in which the gun owner lives, many of which are valid for life. The governor announced that he will propose a single standard across the state to ensure that appropriate checks can be run to bar convicted felons and other prohibited people from possessing firearms.

Combat gun violence in the state’s most violent neighborhoods: the Governor seeks to strengthen the state’s ability to prosecute violent gangs and remove guns from violent street crews through a community gun law.

Cuomo also proposed a New York State Cyber Security Initiative that would include the creation of a new, first-in-the-nation facility that brings together monitoring of both the cyber and physical aspects of critical infrastructure in New York State.

In addition to a 10-point Women’s Equality Act, other elements of Cuomo’s progressive agenda also include: $1 billion to produce or preserve over 14,000 units of affordable housing over the next five years; initiatives to address poverty and hunger, and public health and patient care; raise the minimum wage - now, at $7.25, which amounts to $14,616 per year, less than a living wage - to raise it to $8.75/hour. To correct the inequity of criminal penalties for marijuana possession, he proposes to bring parity to the law and decriminalize public view with 15 grams or less. 

Cuomo’s agenda to “attract good jobs and promote economic growth” is bold and visionary to the extent that New York’s leadership for decades, now, has failed to do what other states and localities and countries are doing to capitalize on resources (human capital, educational and research institutions), and lead the way to the 21st century.

Cuomo wants to create new innovation hot spots. He proposes to create 210 higher education/private sector high tech incubators for start-up companies. These innovation hot spots would be tax free zones - no business, real property or sales taxes – and the state would provide funding for one-stop growth support services (such as legal, accounting). The state would provide investment through a $50 million New York State innovation Venture Capital Fund, which will select companies on a competitive basis. New York State will also reform regulations for Intellectual Property and other regulatory barriers to commercialization.

To make New York a leader in renewable energy, Cuomo is proposing to extend the New York Sun Solar Jobs program at $150 million annually for 10 years to increase solar panel installations in homes and businesses; create a $1 billion New York green bank to leverage public dollars with private sector match to spur the clean economy. He proposes to create the Charge New York Program to invest in an electric car network to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by installing a statewide network of charging stations and providing charging infrastructure tax credits (this is one of those “about time” initiatives) 

I do not embrace everything that Cuomo has proposed. His education reforms, though laudable for a plan to expand pre-kindergarten, embrace the “Education Accountability” movement that basically destroys any kind of initiative and individualization of education, demoralizes and devalues teachers and at its core, is intended to eviscerate the power of teacher unions. 

Also, Cuomo’s “big idea” to open three casino gambling destinations upstate is a sell-out to his biggest campaign donors. Politicians always promise that casino gambling is a panacea to generate funds for education and senior programs without raising taxes. That was the way it was sold to the residents of New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but what the people find is that the costs - to infrastructure, public security - do not compensate. 

I am most skeptical of Cuomo’s call to privatize LIPA (more on this to follow).

Still, I think it is significant that in articulating this bold agenda with such extraordinary detail, Cuomo was being consistent with what he said from the beginning of his candidacy for the Democratic nomination, and through his campaign. 

“Gone are the anti-business, obstructionist, tax capital, and gridlock mentalities, replaced with an entrepreneurial government that collaboratively works together for the people and partners with the private sector to create jobs and get the economy back on track. The agenda laid out today is a comprehensive plan for New York State to rise to meet the challenges of today and the future, from confronting the difficult issue of gun control, to reforming our education system for the 21st century, and rebuilding our communities and infrastructure after Hurricane Sandy. Our accomplishments over the past two years show us that one thing is clear: We can defy the odds and deny the naysayers, and we can accomplish anything together,” Cuomo boldly said.

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