State of the State roundup: 6 key issues for 2020

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his tenth State of the State address Wednesday in Albany. WBFO reporters took in-depth look at what the governor and others are saying about some key challenges the state faces at the start of a new decade.

Education

The governor spent about four minutes talking about education in a one hour and 45-minute speech, but his remarks about education funding got some of the biggest applause of the day.

"If we’re the progressive capital and we want to beat our chests and say we’re the progressive capital, then act that way, and don’t play politics with education money. Use state funds to raise those at the bottom. Use state funds to raise those at the bottom," Cuomo said.

Cuomo called it “shameful” that the state’s distribution of education funding isn’t more progressive. He says he wants to revise the complicated funding formula in order to send more money to poorer school districts—and that he wants to get it done this year.

Cuomo also proposed expanding free college tuition scholarships to SUNY and CUNY schools to families that make up to $150,000 a year. The Excelsior Scholarship Program is currently available for families with a combined income of $125,000 or less.

Medicaid

Cuomo said the state will have to restructure its Medicaid system, which has helped cause the state’s current $6 billion budget gap.

Cuomo partly blamed local governments for overspending on Medicaid, leading some to believe he’s proposing counties and New York City once again pay for their own Medicaid cost increases as opposed to it being covered by the state. However, Cuomo administration officials later said they only want to hold counties more accountable for waste and fraud.

“We have restructured Medicaid before with our (Medicaid Redesign Team) and we’re going to have to do it again this year and we will and we can,” Cuomo said. “The MRT program actually made Medicaid better than ever before.”

Randy Gerlach, president and CEO of Schofield Care nursing home in Buffalo, disagrees. He said long-term care facilities across the state have absorbed approximately $800 million in cuts thanks to MRT changes over the last six years.

“The elected leaders in New York must look elsewhere for budget cuts this year,” he said. “Don’t put it on our back again.”

More details on the potential Medicaid changes are expected when Cuomo reveals his budget later this month.

Opioids

This past year, New York State saw its first decline in opioid-related deaths in a decade. Governor Cuomo said the state needs to continue taking significant steps to continue the decline.

“Now, let’s ban all variations of the deadly fentanyl and synthetic drugs and let’s expand critical access to medication assisted treatment,” Cuomo said.

Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said expanding access to treatment is vital to keep lowering the number of deaths.

“We know that there are many, many people out there that are struggling with opioid use disorder and the only evidence based treatment to get them in to long term recovery is through medication assisted treatment with either methadone or a buprenorphine product like suboxone.”

Burstein said any intervention that takes fentanyl off the street and the market will benefit those recovering.

Erie County had an all-time high of opioid-related deaths in 2016 with 301. In 2017 a decline started and Burstein said that continued through 2019.

“According to our recent data from our medical examiner’s office, for 2019, we have 117 confirmed overdose deaths,” she said. “And there are still about 50 that are suspected and pending confirmation. So we know that we are still continuing to decline in these numbers.”

Fentanyl being laced in other drugs has become a major problem during the opioid crisis. Burstein said so far from looking at the toxicology screens from opioid overdose death victims in 2019, 40 percent included cocaine.

Environment

Cuomo addressed climate change and the threat it poses on New York’s economy and overall well-being, among the first of his agenda items.

“No economic strategy, no social justice reform, no education policy will be worth a damn if we don't have a planet that we can live on,” he said.

After announcing he would push the New York Power Authority and New York Energy Research and Development Authority to further incentives to get more renewable energy projects built, the governor announced his proposed $3 billion Restore Mother Nature Bond Act. If he has his way, it would be passed by the Legislature this session and ready for referendum this November.

Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York, suggests the top priority should be enhancing the state’s coastline protections in anticipation of more weather extremes.

“We have to build more resiliency into our systems and understand that our coastlines are going to get flooded, and we have to start thinking about natural systems to protect us from those types of events,” he said.

Sharing Iwanowicz’s sentiment was Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. She says Lakes Ontario and Erie are just some of the many miles of waterways that could use investment from dollars made available if the Restore Mother Nature Bond Act passes.

“We know the unpredictability with climate change, with both of our lakes. Each lake is responding differently right now to changing weather patterns,” she said. “How can we have and become more resilient shorelines? That's needed right away."

Iwanowicz, though, warns that his organization’s mission is to ensure such a bond act isn’t loaded with “dirty” politically-motivated proposals. He says his group would reject any proposed act which does not truly focus on environmental protection and they would encourage voters to do the same.

Marijuana

Cuomo talked about the economic growth across the state over the past year. Continued growth, he said, is empty without social progress and atoning for the negative effects drug laws have had on communities of color.

“This year lets work with our neighbors, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, to coordinate a safe and fair system and let’s legalize adult use of marijuana.”

But saying it is one thing. Open Buffalo Executive Director Franchelle Parker said creating policies that benefit communities of color will take some work.

“We’re looking at a possible billion-dollar investment all across the state,” she said. “So we need to make sure people that have been systemically harmed by the prohibition that they actually have an opportunity to participate.”

Parker said those opportunities could look like local hiring provisions and community benefits for any out-of-state grow operation looking to make in-roads in Western New York.

Vaping

New York State recently raised the smoking age to 21. Cuomo said he wants to build off that and continue fighting vaping products in 2020.

“After all the millions of lives lost, Big Tobacco has come back to life in a different wrapper. They are now in vaping products,” Cuomo said. “We know well the danger of nicotine addiction and we don’t yet know the dangers of vaping, but young Americans are dying to find out.”

Andrew Hyland, chair of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, said it’s encouraging to see tobacco and e-cigarette regulation as a top priority.

“The big ticket item is the flavors, e-cigarettes and flavored e-cigarettes,” Hyland said. “I know at the federal level there was an announcement of what I would characterize as a partial flavor restriction. The New York State approach that the governor is talking about would take that a step further.”

Hyland said there’s a few common sense solutions being talked about including not allowing e-cigarette ads to target kids and banning tobacco product sales in pharmacies.

“I think it’s a great step what’s in the governor’s State of the State,” he said, “and the science supports taking that even a step further and that flavors hook kids regardless of the form.”

Hyland said there are some things to balance along the way of regulating. He said cigarette smokers tell us e-cigarettes are the most common method they use to quit smoking.

“The evidence of e-cigarettes effectiveness for smoking cessation is not firmly established. There is some evidence to suggest that e-cigarettes may help some people quit smoking,” Hyland said.  “I run the New York State Smokers Quit Line. People come to us, thousands of people come to us to quit smoking every year, and we do see a sizable fraction of people that have this experience with e-cigarettes.”

Hyland says there are also other proven options to quit smoking like working with a doctor.