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State of the State full of flash, short on bang

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Those of you who were unable to watch the governor’s State of the State address missed a marvelous, high-tech show. The graphics were impressive, allowing even the slowest thinkers among us to follow along as a Power-Point presentation on a big screen aped Andrew Cuomo’s speech. Likewise, charts and graphics served to put the governor’s proposals in sharp definition.

Having said that, however, while the governor’s address was long on flash, it was short of bang. It was notable for a number of things left unsaid, and a couple things that were brought out.

Particularly galling to rural New Yorkers was an absence of policy dealing with health care. The governor boasted of the state’s high enrollment under the federal Affordable Care Act, but when it came to health-care delivery, he was silent. Yet, we know that behind the scenes, the governor’s Health Department minions are busy working on plans for regionalization and consolidation of the health-care system, and it would have been edifying to hear straight from Mr. Cuomo’s mouth how that policy decision will be implemented.

There seems to be little doubt that the north country will be heavily affected by the regionalization goals the state is pushing. In at least one scenario we’ve heard, health care would be set up as spokes around a larger regional hub, with centers in Plattsburgh, Watertown and Glens Falls that would feed out to surrounding community hospitals. This scenario would turn north country health care on its ear for a time, as communities absorbed the new reality of dealing with distance as well as disease in their treatment options.

This is such a fundamental policy change that the north country — and any other region of the state facing this proposal — deserved to have the governor explain the rationale, and convince people that the plan could end up with benefits for regional residents. Unfortunately, he did not, and this proposal will have to be pried out of a reluctant Department of Health by diligent reporters. The north country deserves better.

The governor also took up the flash and left out the bang in his discussion of public education. School district officials and taxpayers wanted to hear how the state will address fundamental inequities in aid to education, including the onerous gap elimination penalty. Instead, the focus was on bringing state-of-the-art technology to every classroom in the state by way of a $2 billion bond referendum, and providing bonuses for high-performing teachers.

Promising computers for every desk in a school district that has laid off 60 employees, including teachers, over the past three years because of actual decreases in state aid is a little like promising a cappuccino to a man dying of thirst. From Massena to South Jefferson, the gap elimination penalty — which, to throw people off, the state calls “aid” — has resulted in reduction of actual aid from the state for three years. It was implemented as a nifty little bit of legerdemain to add money to the state’s general fund. But the governor told us yesterday that within two years, the state will have a $2 billion surplus. So the gap elimination penalty no longer has any justification, not that it really ever did.

As to the state’s frightful aid to education formula, educators and taxpayers should have been told by the governor how the state will try to make its schools whole by giving them enough money to operate. State aid to education has been skewed for decades toward wealthy districts over poor districts, and any governor who fixes that fundamental flaw will leave an important legacy. Given that this was the governor’s fourth state of the state address, and he did not even mention the aid to education problem, it’s fair to guess this legacy will not be his.

Gov. Cuomo also put a lot of emphasis on cooperation and consolidation of local governments, because they cost too much. And to the extent he addressed the issue, he was right. But if the state actually wants greater consolidation of schools, which it should, there ought to be some policy clearly elucidated on what type of district is ripe for consolidation and how that can be effected.

The most popular proposal from north country schools has been creation of regional high schools. And there are some convincing arguments that this is a proposal that could result in significant savings over time. Yet there is no legislation on the books in New York that would permit this solution to take place, which means that any districts seriously considering it would be forced to go to the state Legislature for home-rule legislation allowing it. The prospect has become so daunting (remember St. Lawrence County’s fight just to raise its sales tax from 3 to 4 percent?) that it has stopped these proposals in their tracks.

If the governor got behind this idea — in fact, if the governor actually led the way in real education reform, and put some effort into the consolidation question — it could happen. Without his backing, it won’t.

Finally, in what felt like either pandering or an “Oh, yeah, I forgot” moment, the governor brought up the dormant I-98 proposal and said something to the effect of “let’s get this done.” The speech has supercharged the so-called rooftop highway proponents, and any number of union interests across the state whose eyes glaze over with the prospect of the first major highway construction project in the state since Interstate 88 linked Binghamton and Albany.

However, the governor’s press release outlining his State of the State proposals takes a considerable different tone than “Let’s get it done.” It says “New York State will now conduct an in depth feasibility study to develop the most efficient transportation enhancements for this important North Country corridor.” The word interstate isn’t even mentioned. And as the Watertown Daily Times has reported in depth in the past, both state and federal studies have concluded that an “enhanced Route 11,” complete with lane additions and perhaps bypasses, is the most feasible and intelligent course of action. So what the governor is really saying, it would appear, is “let’s study the studies.” How that helps anyone is beyond me.

It is an election year, and that carries with it the baggage of an impending campaign. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to continue to be Gov. Cuomo, and this State of the State speech was a marvelous kickoff to his re-election effort, full of flash, absent any real bang. Mores the pity.

Perry White is city editor of the Watertown Daily Times. Reach him at pwhite@wdt.net.

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