The 2021 State of the State address was a departure from years past. As a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo delivered not one, but four speeches, and he did so virtually, using the War Room on the state Capitol’s second floor as his backdrop.
The first speech, which was also the longest, focused primarily on addressing the physical and financial impacts of the pandemic, with a heavy emphasis on the importance of social and racial equity – particularly when it comes to vaccine distribution plans and overall access to health care.
The governor also released a number of proposals that address a variety of issues of interest to NYSBA and its members.
He directed his recently created New York Vaccine Equity Task Force to address the pervasive structural inequities that have contributed to health and social disparities. As you’ll recall, NYSBA’s House of Delegates recently approved resolutions in response to the pandemic including the importance of equitable vaccine distribution. The HOD voted to recommend the adoption of ethical principles to guide the distribution of a vaccine based upon the recognition of the equal worth and dignity of all human persons.
For the third year in a row, the governor again reiterated the need to legalize cannabis for recreational adult-use, saying that it is imperative to reach a deal with legislative leaders in order to generate a much-needed new revenue stream.
To that end, he again called for the creation of an Office of Cannabis Management to oversee an adult-use cannabis program. The new office will also oversee the medical marijuana and cannabinoid hemp programs. NYSBA favors this proposal because it offers licensing opportunities and assistance to entrepreneurs from communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibitions and enforcement.
The governor did broadly address the need for any adult-use program to include strong social equity language to address the years of harm experienced by communities of color as a result of the War on Drugs. Equity and the distribution of revenue to these communities has been a sticking point between the governor and legislative leaders in years past.
NYSBA’s legislative priorities for 2021 call for the adoption of social equity provisions when crafting regulations and the distribution and financial incentives for disadvantaged communities to participate.
The governor also announced that the state will transform its Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence into the Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence. This office will address partner, domestic and sexual violence in a survivor-centered and comprehensive manner. This is part of a package of legislation that will address several issues including legislation to allow courts to award damages for moving expenses and other housing costs related to domestic violence. The package also includes a bill to ensure abusers who are convicted of misdemeanor assaults on a domestic partner cannot obtain weapons.
The governor announced he will introduce legislation to codify a prior executive order banning fees for late and missed rent payments during the pandemic. This proposal allows tenants to use their security deposit as immediate payment for rent and places a moratorium on residential and commercial evictions until May 1, 2021 for tenants who have endured COVID-related hardship.
The governor recognized that the digital divide has been exacerbated by the pandemic, exposing the fact that many New Yorkers – especially in inner-city and rural areas – still don’t have access to reliable broadband service. To that end, he has proposed that all internet providers be required to offer affordable service at $15 per month to low-income households, which he says is a first-in-the-nation mandate. In addition, he proposed establishing a hardship fund to help students who cannot afford a $15-a-month internet subscription as a result of the pandemic and expediting the Smart Schools Bond Act funding to school districts to meet outstanding device (laptops and/or hotspots) needs.
In June of 2020, the NYSBA House of Delegates approved a resolution urging the governor and the Legislature to prioritize and appropriate funding sufficient to provide affordable high speed broadband access to all of New York State with an emphasis on rural communities.
Finally, the governor has announced he will continue to fully fund the Liberty Defense Project. This program provides free legal consultation and screenings for immigrants in conjunction with the Office for New Americans, including direct representation in deportation proceedings and other issues. One of NYSBA’s legislative priorities for 2021 is to advocate for New York to establish a right to counsel for immigrants facing deportation. Absent an enshrined right to counsel, immigrants should have representation to ensure access to justice, equal protection, and due process under the law.