During the first of four State of the State speeches, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that fighting the COVID-19 pandemic will be the top priority.
Cuomo gave his speech from the War Room in the State Capitol, an ornate lobby with murals memorializing New York’s military battles. He said the No. 1 priority in 2021 is defeating a disease that has sickened over a million New Yorkers and killed more than 39,000.
“The War Room is fitting,” Cuomo said. “Because we are at war. A war that began early last year when we were ambushed by the COVID virus. And a war that continues today.”
Cuomo said he will also focus on turning around what he says is a “short-term” economic crisis caused by pandemic-related shutdowns and planning for an economic resurgence.
The governor said he is also focusing on getting the limited supply of vaccines out faster. So far, the rollout has been uneven.
Registration for New Yorkers over the age of 75, who are included in the next group eligible for the vaccine, began at 8 a.m. Monday. But some providers listed on the state health department’s website said they were not going to be giving out vaccines, and other links or phone numbers were dead ends.
The governor said he is working with Cornell University and Northwell Health to form what he calls a new public health corps to help speed up vaccinations.
“We will hire 1,000 health corps fellows who agree to serve for one year,” Cuomo said. “They will be trained to facilitate a statewide coordinated vaccination operation and do it safely and quickly in every part of the state.”
Cuomo blamed the federal government for not getting enough vaccines to the state more quickly.
The governor also continued his call for Washington to deliver a bailout package for states hit hard by the pandemic. Cuomo has said he’s more hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden, once he’s inaugurated, and the newly Democratic-led Congress will provide aid to help New York close its $15 billion deficit.
Cuomo said that if federal help doesn’t come before the state budget is due in April, he’ll have to take “extraordinary and negative measures,” including cutting school aid by 20% and making deep health care cuts in the midst of a pandemic.
And he continued to warn that proposals by many Democratic lawmakers to raise income taxes on the wealthy won’t bring in enough to close the gap.
“If we raised taxes to the highest income tax rate in the nation on all income over $1 million … we would only raise $1.5 billion,” Cuomo said.
Democratic Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said she believes that given the state’s growing income inequality and its impacts, it’s necessary to change New York’s tax structure. She also said the governor’s estimate that just $1.5 billion could be raised from the wealthy is too low, and that a more compressive restructuring of the state’s tax system could yield more revenue.
“We’re more than willing to look at taxing millionaires and billionaires, because again, we need to rebuild our economy, we can’t just wait for Washington,” Stewart-Cousins said. “I don’t know what they are going to do.”
Senate Republican Minority Leader Robert Ortt said he found a lot to agree with in the Democratic governor’s speech, including proposals to expand broadband to underserved areas. And he said he agrees with the governor’s reluctance to impose new taxes on the wealthy.
“I think he understands that this has the potential, at a critical time for our economy, when you want people investing here, you want people coming to New York, you want these folks hiring folks,” said Ortt. “There’s a potential this could have the reverse effect.”
Cuomo announced earlier that he will propose legalizing the adult recreation use of marijuana in the state budget, an idea long supported by Democrats in the Legislature. Ortt is not ruling out Republican support of the proposal, but said he and other GOP senators will need to see the details first.
The governor is expected to deliver three more speeches this week, laying out more of his plans for the year.