The Associated Press
Niagara Gazette — ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has an abundance of topics for his third State of the State address next week as he frames 2013 around the need to reduce gun violence and the lingering pain of victims of Superstorm Sandy.
As heart-rending as the issues are, they are the kind of crises on which Cuomo thrives.
The session begins Wednesday with the Democrat's State of the State address, a traditional event that's mostly political theater. But this time Cuomo and legislative leaders are within striking distances of several major agreements.
Among the topics with significant support already are:
• A new ban on assault rifles and high-capacity clips for bullets in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.
• Raising the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour from $7.25.
• Securing billions of federal dollars for local and state governments and victims of Superstorm Sandy and establishing preventive measures for the next big storm. Nation-leading climate change initiatives are expected, too.
• Changes to schools to improve student performance that could include longer days and academic years.
• The continuing need to create jobs and rev up the economy.
• Legalizing casinos off Indian land to boost jobs and tax revenues.
• Restrictions on the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk procedures that critics say impinge on civil rights.
He's been careful not to muddy his past two State of the State addresses with perhaps the most controversial statewide issue of whether to authorize drilling for natural gas in the Southern Tier. The hydraulic fracturing technique is opposed by environmentalists and many Democrats, and Cuomo isn't expected to announce a decision Wednesday.
To a large extent, the tragedies of Sandy and gun violence will shape the 2013 legislative session.
"It's not that you come with a pre-ordained agenda — you do in part, but also you have to respond to the need at the time," Cuomo said last week. "This state has tremendous needs that are being presented at this time."
Wednesday's speech, however, is also expected to hold the traditional surprises, usually in the form of a creative new program or law to lead the nation or a huge construction project worthy of someday being named after a governor.
Not all make it beyond the standing ovation. The cornerstone of last year's State of the state speech was a $4 billion convention center and hotel complex at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens that fizzled shortly after it was announced.
"To a certain extent, there are two elephants in the room in this State of the State," said Doug Muzzio, political science professor at New York City's Baruch College. "One is Sandy for its tremendous fiscal and emotional impact, and the other is the psychological impact of the Newtown tragedy."
Muzzio said Cuomo will have to play each of those issues to carefully to maintain his political balancing act. Cuomo wants to ban assault rifles without riling legal gun owners and their supporters upstate. He will also have to keep up pressure on Washington to get the most Sandy recovery aid and minimize the impact on his own state budget, which is already projected to have a deficit of at least $1 billion.
Meanwhile, he must get all this through a Senate where Republicans have maintained a working majority thanks to the allegiance of a freshman Brooklyn Democrat. But Cuomo must also deal with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference without appearing dismissive of traditional Democrats left without a share of majority power.
"We have to agree on legislation that comes to the floor, appointments, everything," said Sen. Jeffrey Klein, a Bronx-Westchester Democrat in the IDC that is part of the so-called majority coalition.
In the Assembly, powerful Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver is making a top priority of raising the minimum wage that was strongly opposed by the Senate's Republican majority.
Republicans, meanwhile, plan employer tax breaks in an effort to boost business, a priority not shared by the Assembly Democrats.
And Cuomo, being watched closely as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, must find a way to land a Democratic priority of campaign finance reform in the face of unwavering opposition by Senate Republicans who oppose public financing of campaigns.
The target Wednesday is lawmakers and New Yorkers statewide.
"I don't pass my legislative agenda in this building," Cuomo said. "I pass it by doing all the town halls, by the emails, by the Internet, by the videos, by the cabinet (members) being in town halls."
Legislators "hear about it when they go home," Cuomo said. "It's the tug on the sleeve in the supermarket, 'What is the governor talking about, raising the minimum wage? I think you should do that.' That's how you convince a politician."