By Jessica Bakeman, Albany Bureau
ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo acknowledged passing a progressive social agenda during his third year in office will be "an uphill battle," but the first-term Democrat said he'll go to the people to garner support for legislation he's failed to enact in the past.
Cuomo tried last year to raise the minimum wage, codify abortion rights, decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and reform the state's campaign finance system. The issues were major priorities in his third State of the State address last Wednesday, leaving lawmakers and special-interest groups to debate whether his chances will be better this time around.
"I win when I communicate with the people," Cuomo told reporters Thursday. "I get the people on board, and then the politicians follow. That's what worked with the first two years, and I hope it works in the third year."
Michael Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, said he's concerned about Cuomo's efforts to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 an hour.
Durant said Cuomo hedged on a wage hike last year, as Democrats argued $7.25 was unlivable, and Senate Republicans warned an increase would hurt businesses and take away jobs. But with a wage hike at the top of the governor's list in 2013 and Democrats co-leading the Senate, Durant said the change looks closer to a reality.
"When (Cuomo) decides to make something a significant priority, he's had a pretty high success rate," Durant said. "And I think that's what should make small-business owners nervous."
Cuomo said during his address Wednesday that the state should have passed the wage hike last year, because "it's the right thing to do."
"I tried very, very hard to get it passed last year, and I failed, dealing with basically the same cast of characters," the governor said Thursday. "It is no doubt an uphill battle. So it's going to be hard."
Some Republicans, including Sen. Greg Ball, R-Patterson, Putnam County, have supported a minimum-wage package that would include tax breaks for businesses. After Wednesday's speech, Ball issued a statement knocking the governor, suggesting Cuomo has declared "Mission Accomplished" on economic issues.
"Before focusing on divisive social issues, we need this governor to stay focused on the three things that matter most: jobs, jobs and more jobs," Ball said in a statement. "Let's continue the hard work to make New York state a leader on that front again."
Among the top priorities in Cuomo's agenda is a 10-point plan to address gender inequality. Included in the package of measures is the Reproductive Health Act, which would guarantee a woman's right to an abortion, and the Fair Pay Act, which supporters say would require employers to provide equal compensation for equal work regardless of gender.
"It didn't pass last year. It didn't pass the year before that, obviously. And we worked on it both years," Cuomo said, referring to the abortion law. "There is no doubt that the Senate is, by its make up, now more favorable to these issues, specifically a woman's right to choose.
"You need a couple of Republican votes by anyone's count, and no one has identified them at this time," he continued. "So it is a difficult vote -- looks better than it has in the past, but it is still very very difficult."
Cuomo met with women's groups Thursday to formulate a public relations strategy.
NARAL Pro-Choice New York pushed women's rights as a campaign issue in the November elections, attacking Republican candidates who had voted against the pay bill or identified as being opposed to abortion. The group has since lauded Cuomo for including a commitment to preserving women's abortion rights in his "litmus test," a list of issues he expects lawmakers to support.
Tara Sweeney, NARAL spokeswoman, said in an email that the Reproductive Health Act stands out nationally as a progressive, pro-choice measure, as many other state legislatures in recent years have considered or passed bills to limit abortion rights.
"The governor's full-throated support of the bill, and the fact that it's part of a comprehensive package to make women fully equal and put New York at the forefront of the nation, makes it all the more groundbreaking," Sweeney said.
Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins of Yonkers said she's confident Republicans would support the women's rights package.
"I think we can find Republican colleagues who understand that women's equality is important, and we certainly can't wait for it anymore," Cousins said Thursday.
Kelly Cummings, spokeswoman for Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos of Nassau County, said in a statement Thursday that it's important to ensure every New Yorker has the same basic rights and necessary health care.
"We look forward to reviewing the laws we currently have on the books and seeing how we can improve those laws," she said.
Church groups continue to oppose the abortion bill. Opponents worry the bill would force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions or face consequences.
Kathleen Gallagher, director of pro-life activities for the state Catholic Conference, said in a statement Friday that lawmakers and the public "should not be fooled" by Cuomo's packaging of the abortion bill with other women's rights measures.
"The extreme nature of the bill has seriously limited its support in the Legislature. So now the governor is attempting to tie it to important initiatives such as helping victims of domestic violence and human trafficking and ending pregnancy discrimination in the workplace," Gallagher said. "He believes the 'all-in' strategy will make it harder to oppose."
Cuomo also paired a controversial measure establishing a public financing system for campaigns with tougher laws for how political donors disclose contributions, the latter of which has garnered bipartisan support.
Republicans oppose using taxpayer dollars to finance candidates' campaigns, like in New York City, where the government matches small donations 6-to-1.
In Skelos' video response to the State of the State, the Senate Republican leader estimated public financing would cost New Yorkers $200 million. Other estimates from Democrats have been lower.
"That's money that would be much better spent on property tax relief -- or investing more money in rural, upstate school districts and underperforming schools around the state," Skelos said.
Republicans have also opposed downgrading the crime of having small amounts of marijuana in public view from a misdemeanor to a violation. Cuomo said the law disproportionately affects young minority males.
Scott Reif, Senate Republican spokesman, said Friday: "We will review all of the governor's proposals."
Under a new Senate power-sharing structure, Republicans will have to agree with the five-member Independent Democratic Conference on legislation -- giving Cuomo better odds than he had last year.
"Under the new bipartisan agreement, all major issues, whether conservative or progressive, will be up for discussion by the two leaders," Eric Soufer, IDC spokesman, said in an email Friday. "Does that mean that more progressive issues are likely to make it to the floor than a year ago? Absolutely."
Assemblyman Bill Reilich, R-Greece, Monroe County, said Friday it's too soon to know what "the mood" will be in his chamber, let alone in the Senate.
But he said: "I'm not going to assume just because the governor has moved more to the left that the Legislature has, too."