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Cuomo outlines second act

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ALBANY — Long on optimism and short on specifics, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo mapped out the next 12 months for the state of New York, a path that will include debates over how much money the poor take home, the form of the state’s electric grid and the structure of the state’s school system.

“Last year, we learned to walk. This year, we’re going to run,” Mr. Cuomo said Wednesday from a chilly convention center in the state capital. “They ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Mr. Cuomo faces a challenge that is the envy of 49 other men and women around the United States: following a phenomenal freshman year whose successes prompted presidential speculation and made stand-up comics mourn the loss of Albany as the butt of their jokes.

In his annual State of the State speech, Mr. Cuomo outlined his second act, which relied on many of the same rhetorical flourishes and metaphors that the first did: The legislative leaders Photoshopped into amusing situations (dressed in children’s clothes, to demonstrate the last time the tax rate for the middle class was so low, 58 years ago); a soaring call for sober spending and jobs, jobs, jobs; and an urging for New York to return to its progressive principles.

On progressive principles, for example, Mr. Cuomo called for an end to fingerprinting recipients of food stamps. The state fingerprints its food stamp recipients to root out fraud, but ends up stigmatizing the assistance, which is why 30 percent of families who are eligible don’t actually receive food stamps, Mr. Cuomo said.

That divided the north country’s legislative delegation along party lines. Republican Sens. Joseph A. Griffo, R-Rome, and Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, said the practice should continue — indeed, it was the only thing Mrs. Ritchie said she disagreed with in the governor’s speech — while Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, said it should stop.

“People who need help, I want them to get the help, but at the same time, I think it increases the potential for fraud, and this is taxpayers’ money we’re talking about,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

But Mrs. Russell said she agreed with the governor’s call to remove barriers to getting help.

“These are programs that are very important to people,” she said.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who spoke before the governor on Wednesday, called for a hike in the minimum wage, which stands at $7.25 per hour.

Mrs. Russell said she didn’t have a specific number in mind, but could support a raise in the minimum wage, warning: “Whenever we raise wages, it has an impact. It’s a delicate balance.”

That balance rests on the fulcrum of employment economics. A person may find it hard to get by on $17,000 a year, but that money has to come from somewhere.

“I have concerns about raising the minimum wage right now,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “Small businesses are struggling to get by. I believe this isn’t the right time to raise the minimum wage.”

Mr. Griffo declined comment, preferring to talk only of Mr. Cuomo’s agenda, and not Mr. Silver’s.

Mr. Cuomo also proposed a major overhaul of the state’s electrical grid, an aging system that is holding back productivity at power generating sites upstate.

He called for a “master plan” to design an “electricity highway,” which would include piping power from Quebec and Western New York. No north country upgrades were mentioned in the very basic, broad outline that Mr. Cuomo offered.

It won plaudits from legislators, who said the state’s grid is due for a refurbishing. But it might face resistance from the electrical workers union, which does not want to pipe power from Canada.

“We have an excess of generation capacity and tremendous wind power potential in Upstate and Western New York and north of the border in Quebec,” Mr. Cuomo wrote in his message to the Legislature. “We have tremendous energy needs Downstate.”

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 97, which has employees at upstate electricity generation facilities, has opposed the $2 billion Champlain Hudson Power Express, which would run a 330-mile line from Quebec to New York City, mostly under the waters of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

Union leadership is “delighted” that the governor made in-state transmission improvements a priority, business representative Philip G. Wilcox said.

“But we need to find out a lot more details on what would be included,” he said. “We are not in favor of importing power from Canada.”

Mr. Cuomo also addressed the issue of schools in the state, in a way that followed a now-familiar pattern. He rejected the two sides to the argument entirely, and deemed himself a champion of neither, but of the people themselves; this time, it was the students. Then, he appointed a commission to flesh out the nitty-gritty.

“The only group without lobbyists are the students,” Mr. Cuomo said, as images of superintendents, principals, teachers, and bus drivers flashed on a PowerPoint slide on a screen behind him. “I’m taking a second job.”

With that, an image of Mr. Cuomo’s office door with his new title: student lobbyist.

He announced the creation of a commission that will look at making education more efficient and more sensible. New York spends more than any other state in the nation, but has only the 38th highest graduation rate, Mr. Cuomo said.

Mr. Cuomo urged the attendees to help him switch those two numbers around.

The committee will be made up of joint legislative and executive appointments, and will make its report sometime this year.

A labor-backed advocacy group apparently did not think the commission was enough. The Alliance for Quality Education wants Mr. Cuomo to follow the recommendation of the state Board of Regents, which said more money was needed for low-wealth schools.

“If Governor Cuomo intends to be an effective lobbyist for every schoolchild across the state, his budget will incorporate the New York state Board of Regents’ call for fairness and equity in our schools by prioritizing funding to high-needs schools,” Nikki Jones, a spokeswoman for the group, said in a statement following Mr. Cuomo’s speech. “In his first year, it was Governor Cuomo’s budget that failed to represent students’ educational needs by slashing 11,000 teaching positions and cutting arts, music, after school and college prep courses.”

Mr. Cuomo’s roughly hourlong speech touched on a variety of other topics. They include:

■ Pension changes: Mr. Cuomo called for a new pension tier, meaning that benefits for employees hired in the future will be cut.

■ A pledge against new taxes and fees.

■ A constitutional amendment that would allow non-Native casino gambling in New York.

■ Three $20 million competitive grants that will be open to all SUNY schools.

■ Public financing for election campaigns.

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