Cuomo Finishes First Year Strong But Biggest Challenges May Lie Ahead

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Governor Andrew Cuomo will give his second State of the State address Wednesday afternoon. It will also mark his first full year on the job.

So far, judging by his poll numbers and his list of accomplishments, Cuomo appears to have strong momentum as he heads into his second year in office. And he will need every bit of it — and more — because his greatest challenges still may be ahead of him.

Watching Governor Cuomo in action is like watching a master tactician at work. Be it urban youth unemployment, taxes or taxis, Cuomo has been able to get both sides of the aisle to not only talk to one another, but get things accomplished.

At a bill signing in Brooklyn, Cuomo took the chance to take a bipartisan shot at his colleagues in Washington, D.C. "When you are looking at Washington and you are looking at the Congress that is gridlocked, and they are pointing fingers at one another, and they are playing politics with each other and Democrats are blaming Republicans and Republicans are blaming Democrats," Cuomo said. "Everybody is blaming everybody. A lot of argument, a lot of debate and no progress for the people, and the nation is suffering for years now."

Cuomo insists things that things are now radically different in a can-do Albany.

"And New York made a beautiful statement and said we are not waiting for Washington. We are going to step up and we are going to lead, and New York is going to take its own future in its hands," Cuomo said to loud cheering and applause.

Cuomo's political fortunes have also been boosted by a multi-million dollar TV ad buy from an independent group called Committee to Save New York that includes real estate and business interests impressed with the Cuomo track record.

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizen's Union, a good government group, gives Cuomo high marks for his first year.

"Governor Cuomo has made state government work again," Dadey said. "He accomplished a number of things: an on time budget, cutting ten billion dollars, achieving marriage equality, property tax and ethics, and I think New Yorkers applaud him for that as evidenced by the high poll numbers."

Dadey does have one note for Cuomo in his second year. Work more publicly and less behind the scenes when building consensus.

"It is great to have an effective functioning government,” he said, “but an important component of that is to have one that is also transparent.”

Getting Tough With Unions

One thing that Cuomo has made no secret of from his campaign for the job was his plan to drive harder bargains with public unions. Richard Steier, editor of the Chief-Leader, which tracks labor relations for the state and city public workforce, thinks Cuomo has done just that so far.

"Well he doesn't look like Scott Walker or John Kasich, the governors of Wisconsin and Ohio, who came in with a full bore assault on unions and looked to take away their fundamental rights," Steier said. "But he has managed to intimidate union leaders and, in one case, their members after the members initially voted down a contract with the threat of layoffs."

How to Work with Less

Over at the New York State Association of Counties, the staff will be listening closely to the governor's speech. Many New York counties have experienced disappointing sales tax revenues, lowered property values at the same time as a boost in the demand for services, like welfare for the poor.

But Steve Acquario, with the Association of Counties, said his members remain optimistic. He thinks Cuomo understands the unsustainable burden Medicaid poses to counties. Between Cuomo's Medicaid reforms and the roll out of President Barack Obama's health care program, county governments could finally be off the hook for more than $7 billion dollars annually in mandated Medicaid payments to the state coffers, according to Acquario.

"I think the convergence of the Medicaid re-design efficiencies, this great work that Governor Cuomo has led, the implementation of the Federal Affordable Care Act in New York State, provides the unique window of opportunity to remove the local taxpayer from financing Medicaid. That has never existed before," Acquario said.

Acquario is also hopeful about Cuomo's strategy to revive the Empire State economically through regional competitions, such as collaborations between cities and universities.

Challenges Cuomo Faces in Year Two

But Acquario concedes there is one economic development strategy which remains highly controversial: hydro-fracking for natural gas.

"One county, Chemung County, is already seeing an investment that is providing a serious return on an investment there, their airport. They are having a little boom. It remains to be seen how the state will address the environmental concerns which are quite legitimate," Acquario said.

In front of the capital building, Pastor Frances Rosenau from the nearby Westminster Presbyterian Church and her husband were showing some out of town friends downtown Albany. Rosenau says she wants to hear the governor address the growing ranks of poor and near poor she and her clergy colleagues are grappling with daily.

"I'd like to hear what he has to say about what he is going to do about the social order in New York State," Pastor Rosenau said. 

"Last winter and this winter the numbers are just through the roof and we want to put ourselves out of business - we want to not to have to open our doors because people are fed and they have all they need to eat but there is an increasing need for that and that is a shame in a state where there is so much income disparity."

Even as Governor Cuomo tries to chart the state out of the recession the latest reports on the state of New York's families are sobering. According to a November report from the Fiscal Policy Institute child poverty in upstate cities like Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse ranged from 43 to 51 percent. In New York City just under a third of children live in poverty.

Additional reporting by Colby Hamilton