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New York will legalize marijuana in 2020, Cuomo vows

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. — Facing a multibillion-dollar budget gap and a restive, emboldened left-wing of his party, Governor Andrew Cuomo laid out his 2020 agenda Wednesday, promising to legalize marijuana, boost environmental spending, and build on a raft of legislative wins in a Democratic-dominated capital.

Considering the state’s economic straits, Cuomo leaned heavily on proposals that would need little or no state funding, like banning gun ownership for people who have committed certain misdemeanor crimes in other states, banning foam food containers, and outlawing synthetic opioids similar to fentanyl.

Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, mostly sidestepped the state's daunting $6 billion budget gap; absent were any specifics on whether he supported raising taxes or cutting spending to tackle the fiscal imbalance.

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Assembly leaders have suggested that new taxes on the rich could be a solution; Cuomo, however, said that he wants to slice tax rates for small businesses by one-third, something he said would help some 36,000 taxpayers.

At the same time, Cuomo retained his penchant for higher-priced infrastructure projects, proposing to invest $300 million to repurpose the Erie Canal to attract tourists, $9 million to build a drone facility upstate, and an unspecified sum on an ambitious plan to revamp Penn Station to accommodate an additional 175,000 riders by building eight new tracks.

The governor outlined his plans in his annual State of the State address, which kicks off the start of the year's legislative session and comes on the heels of a historic year in Albany, where lawmakers passed major new laws on rent, climate change and congestion pricing, among other issues.

One major issue that fell short last year was marijuana legalization. It was a failure that Cuomo promised to remedy in 2020, a move that could pour much-needed revenue into state coffers. At the same time, the governor also suggested that the state university system be enlisted to do research on the drug and its effects, saying that "the cannabinoid industry has gone unregulated and unchecked," likening the drug's potential peril to that of opioids.

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"The federal government failed Americans with opioids," Cuomo said in a briefing book released with the governor's speech. "And we cannot allow that to happen with cannabinoids."

The governor's agenda — entitled "Making Progress Happen" — also outlined a robust list of social proposals, with many geared at improving women's status in the state, including studies to increase representation for women on corporate boards (California just enacted a law guaranteeing that) and $20 million in grants for female entrepreneurs. Cuomo also promised to take aim at the so-called pink tax, by which businesses charge women more for services and personal care items.

Cuomo has trumpeted his actions on gay rights — including legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011. His top-line proposal for the LGBTQ community — permitting paid gestational surrogacy — had failed to gain enough support in 2019, after some advocates for women's rights argued that such surrogacy commodifies the body.

Cuomo also said that he supported paid sick leave for workers of businesses with five or more employees and wanted to codify benefits and protections for workers of the growing gig economy, although he did not offer specifics.

Other ideas were recycled, like an equal rights amendment to establish factors such as sex and sexual orientation as protected classes, a proposal to study the construction of a high-speed rail across the state and a law change to allow movie theaters to sell alcohol. The governor also brought out revised versions of ideas that previously passed the Legislature, only to be vetoed, including legalizing electronic bikes and scooters.

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Like last year, Cuomo made the environment a cornerstone of his agenda: He proposed leveraging $3 billion in bonds to restore wildlife habitats and mitigate flood risks, while offering plans to preserve 4,000 acres of land in the mid-Hudson Valley and upgrade the wastewater treatment plant at Lake George, a popular vacation spot.

Cuomo also took aim at sexual predators, proposing legislation to ban high-risk sexual offenders from New York City's subway and prohibit them from using social media, dating apps and video game chats.

If 2019 was any indication, Cuomo tends to get what he wants from his yearly wish list. The overwhelming majority of his proposals were approved last year, except for marijuana legalization.

Some progressive activists were dismayed the governor did not put forward ambitious plans to tackle some of the state's most pressing issues, like homelessness.

"Can you keep making progressive gains when it costs money?" said Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy for All, a coalition of progressive groups and unions. "I think that's the question."

In recent years, Cuomo had chosen to unveil his budget during the State of the State address. But facing a budgetary quagmire this year, the governor decided he would present his budget separately later in the month.

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"It's the $29 billion elephant in the room and he knows it," said Andrew Rein, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog, referring to the state's projected cumulative budget gap of $28.8 billion through 2023.

“When you have a structural problem, the longer you delay addressing it, the larger it becomes,” he added.