EDITORIAL: Listen closely when Cuomo speaks

IF YOU MISSED Governor Cuomo’s annual State of the State address last week, don’t worry, you can watch it online. It lasts over an hour and a half, including the obligatory spontaneous applause, a formality that makes the speeches of high profile politicians like the governor look as if they were choreographed by consultants from North Korea.

Those of us who depend on the written record read the transcript, all 8,736 words of it. In print it lets me imagine the governor’s distinctive voice while scanning the lines for substance rather than style. Some of what he said pertains directly to local issues like property taxes, power lines and school funding.

Reporters and pundits have said plenty about the pre-election list of Cuomo administration accomplishments that opened the substantive portion of his speech. Mr. Cuomo recounted the sorry shape the state was in when he took office and the progress made since then lowering state taxes and controlling costs. His printed words also explain why lawmakers from New York City are grumbling about how little there was in his speech that addressed the needs of their constituents. The speech concentrated on the state north of the city.

The governor gets what troubles those of us who live in the vast area lumped together as Upstate. Despite the positive steps state government has made getting its own house in order, he knows residents here pay the highest property taxes in the nation. His plan, announced before the speech, is a temporary property tax “freeze” that would benefit taxpayers in municipalities that meet two criteria: 1) the municipalities would have to stay within the existing 2% (approximately) cap on property tax increases and; 2) in the second year the municipalities would have to take “concrete steps to reduce their costs through shared services and or consolidation.” Under these conditions, the state would pay for any tax increase up to 2%.

The governor didn’t say whether this program would continue after the second year nor did he provide any examples of “concrete steps” for sharing or consolidating. Broad policy statements often don’t include such details. But it’s clear that the governor believes in both carrots and sticks.

It came as no surprise that Mr. Cuomo blamed high property taxes on the bewildering variety of taxing districts in the state and the sheer number of them–10,500. He’s said this before, but repetition doesn’t make it resonate here.

We all know inefficiencies and duplications of service exist, but tax districts are the mechanism the state has given citizens to support essential services and to keep them accountable to the public. His “concrete steps” sounds more like “concrete shoes” that would sink local services with no guarantee that they’d be replaced by cheaper, more effective alternatives.

Mr. Cuomo is a smart man. Certainly his brain trust could work with local authorities to map out a rational plan for cutting the number of tax districts by half over the next decade and estimating how much each community would save as a result. Without a plan to use as a benchmark for success, Mr. Cuomo is just another politician asking the electorate: Trust me.

We’ve heard  that before.

On new lines to bring power from upstate suppliers to the city it sounds like the governor wants to have it both ways. He hopes to speed up construction of high voltage lines along existing rights of way without the lines “spreading into local communities.” He talked about incentives for “smart” plans, too. What his speech doesn’t tell us is whether he understands that existing lines have already spread into our communities. Opponents here agree that current rights of way should be used but we want the lines buried. That’s the smart plan.

Finally, the governor is right to call for borrowing $2 billion to pay for “the technology of tomorrow today” in classrooms. But how much of that money would pay for training teachers to use this technology? (Students already know.) And by the way, governor, will there be money in the state budget to train teachers in the Common Core Curriculum that has gotten off to such a rocky start? If not, perhaps the state should address the unfinished classroom tasks of today before chasing after the technology of tomorrow.

It was a good speech overall. The governor cares about his Upstate constituents, but he still has a lot to learn about us. He does listen, and an election year is an excellent opportunity to teach him more.

Comments are closed.