Cuomo budget calls for legal pot, tackles taxes and health care 

Governor Andrew Cuomo  has taken a very direct step toward legalizing recreational cannabis use in New York: He's included a plan to do it in his budget proposal.

Cuomo just wrapped up his annual State of the State and budget addresses to lawmakers, and legal cannabis was just one of a long list of policy proposals he laid out. He called on lawmakers to:
  • Lower state income tax rates for households making between $40,000 and $300,00;
  • To put into state law coverage and preexisting conditions protections guaranteed under the federal Affordable Care Act;
  • To launch a Green New Deal;
  • Pass legislation that creates a public campaign finance system, bans corporate contributions to candidates, and  reins in independent expenditures.
He also called on the Legislature to pass a slew of bills, including the Reproductive Health Act. Senate and Assembly leaders plan to vote on the bill on January 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. The legislation would modernize New York's abortion laws and bring them in line with the protections outlined in the 1973 US Supreme Court decision. New York's abortion laws are currently provisions in the state penal code.

Cuomo's marijuana legalization proposal will grab much of the public's attention, in part because many people feel it's something that's long overdue. But it will also have opposition. Cuomo didn't offer a lot of details in his speech, but he's consistently talked about it as a matter of justice, and has refrained from framing it as a money-maker for the state. The plan in his budget would seal the records of people convicted of certain marijuana-related offenses.

"Let's create an industry that empowers the poor communities that paid a price and not rich corporations out to make a buck," he said.

Activists and legislators have favored legislation sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Senator Liz Krueger. Their bill calls for taking a substantial portion of the revenue generated by taxing cannabis sales and reinvesting it in low-income communities that have been most impacted by decades of prohibition. The proposal outlined in Cuomo's budget briefing book appears to take a similar approach.

But Cuomo said his proposal also allows for counties and municipalities to opt out of the program. However, he wasn't clear on what, exactly, the local governments can decline or what that process would entail.

He criticized the changes to federal tax law that prohibit homeowners from deducting any property tax payments over $10,000. The state is going to sue the federal government over the policy, he said. He's including the middle-class income tax cuts to provide relief now, he said.

Cuomo's budget includes $1.5 billion worth of investment in renewable energy and a $70 million property tax compensation fund to help communities that face the loss of an old power plant, he said. He also said the state needs to require 100 percent clean energy by 2040. He didn't clarify whether his definition of "clean power" is limited to renewables, or if it includes nuclear generation, too.

These measures are all part of what Cuomo refers to as the Green New Deal, an idea that progressives and climate activists have proposed for years.

He also called for a statewide ban on plastic bags — which is sure to meet resistance from retailers — and an expanded bottle bill.

Cuomo also proposed:
  • A permanent 2 percent property tax cap;
  • That the Comptroller's Office and the Inspector General's Office review larger state agency contracts;
  • Legislation that would put into law his executive order barring state agencies from inquiring about any person's immigration status;
  • Reforming New York City rent regulations;
  • An investment of $200 million to fight the opioid crisis, partly by removing barriers to treatment access;
  • A change in the education funding formula that would direct money not just to poorer districts, but poorer schools as well;
  • Legalizing sports betting in Upstate New York casinos.
The Alliance for Quality Education has already criticized the governor's budget proposal, saying it cuts some state education aid. And the business advocacy group Unshackle Upstate said it opposes Cuomo's proposed "energy mandate," his proposal to require any project receiving state subsidies to pay prevailing wage, and public financing of campaigns. Those proposals "would severely weaken our economy and hurt taxpayers," Unshackle's executive director, Michael Kracker, said in a statement. Unshackle Upstate supports the property tax cap, the statement said.

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