By Hilary Russ
(Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed on Wednesday dozens of new initiatives for the state, including new casinos and other measures aimed at helping upstate areas regain their financial footing after decades of economic decline.
Cuomo, in his annual State of the State address, proposed locating up to three casinos upstate to increase tourism and provide some local property tax relief and education funds for struggling cities.
New York legislators agreed last year to legalize public casinos, saying they would amend the state constitution to expand gambling outside Native American resorts. They must still finalize the legislation.
Cuomo also said the state, with a population of nearly 20 million, would launch new marketing plans that include duty-free stores for New York-made products and a national white-water rafting competition.
Cuomo floated several ideas for supporting fledgling businesses, including the creation of a $50 million venture capital fund. He also proposed 10 high-tech incubator "hot spots" in which start-up companies would not have to pay business, property or sales taxes.
The plans were just a few of the dozens put forward by Cuomo in what he said was the most aggressive agenda he has proposed since taking office in January 2011. But he did not indicate in his speech how any of the proposed programs would be funded.
Speaking for more than an hour, Cuomo said he would focus on upgrading the state's fuel delivery system, subways, and other infrastructure to prevent multibillion-dollar damage from severe weather events like Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into the region on October 29.
He also proposed specific new restrictions on firearms in the wake of deadly shooting rampages in late 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, and Webster, New York.
And he said the state's minimum wage should rise to $8.75 an hour from the current $7.25.
"We have daunting challenges," he said. "But these challenges also pose exciting opportunities."
Several of New York's local governments have faced severe financial struggles after the recession, including Nassau and Suffolk counties, both on Long Island to the east of New York City.
But several cities in the northern and western parts of the state, including Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, have been losing jobs for many years.
On Wednesday, Moody's Investors Service downgraded Niagara Falls to Baa1 from A2, warning that it could cut the credit rating further if the city loses a legal dispute with the Seneca Nation over gambling revenue.
Cuomo proposed creating a program that would advise local governments on how to restructure their finances.
The program would be run jointly by private consultants, the state's budget division, the attorney general and New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose program to monitor municipal fiscal distress went into effect this year.
He also said the state should consider spending $1 billion to create or preserve 14,000 units of affordable housing over the next five years.
(Reporting by Hilary Russ; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Tim Dobbyn)