Legislature returns Wednesday amid acrimony

ALBANY -- Traditionally, the first day of the legislative session at the state Capitol kicks off with the State of the State address by the governor.

This year, there won't even be an address by the governor directly to lawmakers.

"It’s a slap in the face of the Legislature," Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mount Vernon, said Tuesday.

The lack of a traditional State of the State address by Gov. Andrew Cuomo highlights what may be the most contentious year between the Democratic governor and the 213 state lawmakers since he took office in 2011.

The Legislature returns Wednesday to Albany for its six-month session.

Cuomo is choosing to give six regional addresses starting Monday, eschewing decades of history of the governor laying out his priorities for the year before a joint session of the Senate and Assembly.

No pay raise

The move comes after Cuomo angered lawmakers last month after his appointees to a pay panel scuttled plans for the Legislature's first raise since 1999.

So lawmakers will return for the six-month session with some of them vowing to re-establish their standing as a co-equal branch of government.

"We need to re-calibrate this," Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, Oneida County, said Tuesday on "The Capitol Pressroom," a public-radio show.

"And we’ve got to ensure that we maintain not only the separation of powers, but the balance of powers."
On Tuesday, Cuomo's office said the "Regional State of the State Addresses" will be delivered Monday in New York City and Buffalo.

On Tuesday, Jan. 10, they will be held in Westchester County and Long Island.  The following day, the speeches will be in Albany and Syracuse.

Sen. Rich Funke, R-Penfield, Monroe County, blasted Cuomo for leaving out Rochester.

No specific locations or times were announced for the speeches, but the public can register to attend on the governor's homepage by Friday at noon.

New history

The governor's office has defended the changes, saying there is no requirement on the timing or location of the speech. Also, his office said, the governor is only required to issue written messages annually to the Legislature.

In 1923, then-Gov. Al Smith started giving annual speeches and it has been the tradition since.

When Cuomo took office, he stopped delivering the State of the State in the Capitol's Assembly chamber, instead holding it in a convention center in the neighboring Empire State Plaza.

Over the past two years, he has given the speech in conjunction with releasing his proposed budget for the year.

This year, his spending plan is due Jan. 17 for the fiscal year that starts April 1.

“Our efforts have focused on regional development strategies across the state and we want the opportunity to lay out regional accomplishments, goals and challenges," Melissa DeRosa, the governor's chief of staff, said in a statement Dec. 26.

"Next month, the governor will bring his message directly to communities statewide, announcing regional initiatives and groundbreaking proposals he will advance in 2017."

On Tuesday, left-leaning advocates held their own "People's State of the State" outside the Capitol.

It was the 27th consecutive year the event was held by left-leaning activists from various organizations, who laid out a broad, 12-point agenda tackling everything from tax policy to renewable energy.

Topping the list was the permanent extension of the millionaire's tax, a higher state income-tax rate for those making $1 million or more a year that is set to expire at the end of 2017.

"How can we even consider giving millionaires tax relief and putting more strain on our already fragile safety net?" said Susan Zimet, executive director of the Hunger Action Network of New York State and former town supervisor of New Paltz.

Fights continue

On New Year's Eve, Cuomo drew the ire of local governments and state lawmakers for vetoing a bill that would have required the state to slowly pick up the costs for indigent defense programs.

Cuomo said the bill went too far, requiring the state to pay about $800 million for the program -- largely for costs not associated with criminal defense for the poor.

Nonetheless, lawmakers blasted the veto.

"Governor Cuomo’s end-of-the-year, close-to-midnight veto once again shows that he refuses to get serious about or make the commitment to meaningful mandate relief for local governments and local property taxpayers," Sen. Thomas O'Mara, R-Big Flats, Chemung County, said in a statement.

Cuomo expects to roll out his priorities over the course of the next week.

That started Tuesday with his proposal to offer free tuition on public-college campuses.

On Wednesday, he is giving a speech in Manhattan on the state's infrastructure, another of his priorities.

Senate divided

The Legislature is also again returning with a fractured state Senate.

Republicans hold just a one-seat majority, and that's because Democratic Sen. Simcha Felder of Brooklyn sits with them.

Senate Democrats have urged Cuomo to help unify all Democrats in the Senate so they have a majority.
But Cuomo said it's not his place to get involved, leading to a war of words between him and Senate Democratic leaders.

Illustrating the ongoing divide, the seven-member Independence Democratic Conference said Monday it would again align itself with the Republican majority, an arrangement the sides have had since late 2012.

"The Independent Democratic Conference is joining this majority coalition because, as pragmatic progressives, we know how important it is to engage and get things done," IDC leader Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who represents parts of lower Westchester, said in a statement.

"This bipartisan coalition will represent every county across New York, ensuring that every New Yorker has a voice in the Senate."

Includes reporting by Albany Bureau staff writer Jon Campbell.
 


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