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Budget deficit looms over Cuomo's State of the State speech 

Governor Andrew Cuomo is set to deliver his State of the State message on Wednesday, as New York faces its worst budget deficit in a decade.

The state begins the new year facing a $6 billion budget gap, and closing the deficit is likely to dominate the session.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group, a longtime Albany observer, said lawmakers face a big challenge.

“The big gorilla of the session is going to be how do they deal with the budget deficit,” Horner said. “And that’s not easy.”

Fueling the deficit is a rise in Medicaid spending. Cuomo’s budget officials have already suggested delaying a Medicaid payment into the next fiscal year, for the second year in a row, to partially offset the gap.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said his Democratic members will look for new revenues, and he has not ruled out raising taxes on the wealthy. His counterpart, Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, said raising taxes is not the first option that she would consider.

It’s an election year in 2020, and some Senate Democrats, including Stewart-Cousins, represent parts of the New York City suburbs, where new taxes are particularly unpopular, and they worry Republican opponents could make them a campaign issue.

Cuomo, speaking at a business lunch on Monday, said he’s not planning to include tax increases in his deficit-closing proposal. He said he disagrees with the views of many politicians that “more money” is the answer.

“There’s not necessarily a correlation between more money and a better product,” Cuomo said.

The governor also hinted that he might not accept proposals to raise spending on school aid. The State Board of Regents has recommended a $2 billion increase.

“You are already spending more money per pupil than any state in the United States of America,” Cuomo said. “But you're in the middle when it comes to performance.”

Cuomo said the rising health care costs that have fueled the deficit also have to be “addressed structurally.”

Horner said closing the deficit could force lawmakers to make some unpopular choices.

“In an election year, the Legislature is not going to want to do cuts,” Horner said. “It’s a tricky balance.”

Cuomo already has released more than 30 separate State of the State proposals in the past couple of weeks, and most would not immediately cost the state much money. They include banning single-use plastic foam containers, cracking down on underage vaping, and studying how to bring high-speed rail to New York.

Some of his plans could even bring in revenues for the state. Cuomo is expected to announce a proposal to legalize the adult recreational use of marijuana.

Melissa Moore with the Drug Policy Alliance said profits from the legal sale of cannabis also should be directed to help people in communities who were adversely affected by the decades-long marijuana prohibition.

“By reinvesting tax revenue back into exactly the communities that have been the hardest hit by criminalization and the war on drugs,” Moore said. “And making sure that we are building up those communities.”

The governor’s speech came in the wake of several violent incidents of anti-Semitism, including a knife attack at a rabbi’s home north of New York City during Hanukkah that injured five people, one severely. Cuomo said he’ll address the issue of the growing number of hate crimes in his speech, and will propose a bill to create the crime of domestic terrorism.

“Because these people are domestic terrorists, and I want them prosecuted that way,” the governor said to applause.

Whatever the governor proposes, the Legislature is going to have less time this year to act on it.

The session is going to be a few weeks shorter this year. The adjournment date is set for early June, instead of the traditional end of the month.

Karen DeWitt is the Albany correspondent for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY. She can be reached at kdewitt@wxxi.org.

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