After laying out her priorities in the State of the State address, Gov. Kathy Hochul must now work with the Legislature to back her with funding and new laws.
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Luis Ferré-Sadurní and
ALBANY, N.Y. — When Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled her policy agenda for New York last week, she appeased unions with her commitment to boost wages, appealed to business leaders with business-friendly rhetoric and threw in crowd-pleasers, such as proposals to fix potholes and allow bars and restaurants to sell to-go drinks.
But her most explicit overtures were directed at one audience: state lawmakers.
Promising a “new era” of collaboration, Ms. Hochul pledged to “share success” and “find common ground” with legislators, declaring that “the days of governors disregarding the rightful role of this Legislature are over.”
Over the coming months, Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat, will need to court and cajole state lawmakers to turn her expansive policy aspirations into reality when she negotiates her first state budget with Democrats who control the statehouse.
Many of her core priorities align in principle with those of Democratic leadership, but she will have to contend with an emboldened Legislature that has become increasingly liberal and could pressure her to move in the same direction.
Ms. Hochul is betting that actively engaging lawmakers as governing partners will help her reach consensus, in sharp contrast to the confrontational approach of her predecessor, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“It’s not going to be totally chaos-free because it’s a multibillion-dollar budget, so there’s always going to be dissension,” said Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority leader in the Assembly. “But I believe we will have a smoother budget process.”
Indeed, most Democratic lawmakers appear optimistic about working with Ms. Hochul and minimizing differences, but she will still have to wade through emerging rifts on a number of measures she laid out in her State of the State address last week. That effort could turn into a political minefield as she runs for a full term as governor this year and juggles pressure from her left and right.
Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader in the State Senate, has already signaled that her members intend to pursue a proposal to expand child care that is more far-reaching than the one Ms. Hochul put forth. “It’s time for us to make universal, affordable child care a reality in our state,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said in remarks last week.
The details of the child care proposal Senate Democrats will coalesce around remain unclear, but Ms. Hochul’s version — targeting about 100,000 low-income families — appeared to be more restrained than a universal approach.
Carl E. Heastie, the speaker of State Assembly, has also expressed reservations about Ms. Hochul’s proposal to impose term limits on governors. Indeed, his second-in-command, Ms. Peoples-Stokes, said that “term limits will need to be hashed out because, from my perspective, there’s not a lot of tolerance for that.”
That measure would require a constitutional amendment, a lengthy process that requires lawmakers pass the measure in two consecutive legislative sessions before putting it to voters in a referendum.
Ms. Hochul also unveiled a proposal to build more housing by increasing residential density in the suburbs, and a pledge, similar to Mr. Cuomo’s, to build or preserve 100,000 affordable and 10,000 supportive housing units over five years.
But those plans did little to placate the party’s left wing, which has clamored for more sweeping protections for renters, including legislation to make it harder for landlords to evict tenants and raise rents.
“I think it’s good, but I think it’s a low number for a state where we have 20 million people,” said State Senator Jessica Ramos, a Democrat from Queens, who also lamented the governor’s silence on replenishing the excluded workers fund, which provided cash payments to workers who did not receive federal relief during the pandemic. “It’s a much bigger problem.”
Other flash points may soon emerge around efforts to amend the state’s contentious bail law, as well as potential financing for the construction of a stadium for the Buffalo Bills, Ms. Hochul’s hometown football team, with taxpayer money.
The state is negotiating with the Bills and Erie County officials over whether and how much to invest in building a stadium. The outlay, which is expected to be substantial, could rekindle an old debate over whether governments should be in the business of funding professional sports arenas to keep teams from seeking greener pastures.
How the governor intends to finance and implement many of the policies laid out in her address and an accompanying 237-page briefing book will become clearer when Ms. Hochul releases her budget proposal on Tuesday.
She will then have to haggle with the Legislature, which must approve the final state budget, in a monthslong process that is supposed to culminate by April. That will mean reconciling her spending priorities with those of the Legislature in negotiations where governors traditionally have held an upper hand.
“The question is, fundamentally, what will be delivered, what we can afford and how impactful will those programs be,” said Andrew Rein, the president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog.
This year, the state’s coffers are overflowing, partly after an influx of federal funding, with state officials now projecting balanced budgets through 2025, a starting negotiating position for Ms. Hochul that Mr. Rein described as “virtually unprecedented.”
It remains to be seen how much Democrats will seek to push Ms. Hochul to the left, especially in a year when state lawmakers and the governor face election tests amid concerns about Republicans making inroads. Still, the party’s most leftward faction has expressed no desire to pull back.
“What the governor could have done with the State of the State is build on the momentum of last year’s historic budget,” said Assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest, a first-term democratic socialist. “This year is an election year, and I know she’s really concerned about gaining the support of Black working-class people, and if she truly wants that then she should join us in fighting for our agenda.”
Yet for all their differences, most Democratic lawmakers appeared to embrace the pillars of Ms. Hochul’s agenda, cheering proposed investments in the health care work force, the expansion of tuition assistance programs and good- government priorities like ethics reform and voting rights.
They welcomed her willingness to take on messy but consequential issues such as rehabilitating the state’s university system and addressing the disruptive cultural and physical legacy of infrastructure projects like the Cross-Bronx Expressway in New York City and the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo.
“There’s a certain amount of political courage that comes from recognizing problems, because once you recognize them you become obligated to fix them,” said State Senator Sean Ryan, a Democrat from Buffalo, who called Ms. Hochul’s vision “a real pragmatic approach.”
Many lawmakers mentioned instances when the governor had called them to consult on a bill or had reached out to offer support when she was in their district — signals, they said, that Ms. Hochul’s vows of collaboration could be more than political rhetoric.
Mr. Cuomo, in contrast, was known to call lawmakers to berate and intimidate them in pursuit of his objectives, fostering alliances that were born from fear, rather than good will.
But even the best working relationships must contend with challenges, and the upcoming session will have its share for the governor.
The increase in violent crime during the pandemic will continue to be an issue for Ms. Hochul, who will have to decide whether or not to revisit legislation from 2019 that abolished cash bail for most crimes. Moderate Democrats like Eric Adams, the New York City mayor, and Representative Thomas Suozzi, who is challenging Ms. Hochul in the primary for governor, have called for changes to the bail law.
Ms. Stewart-Cousins said last week that Senate Democrats have no intention of amending it, raising the specter of a bitter intraparty clash if Ms. Hochul seeks to change the law. Republicans, who support a full repeal, are already using the issue as a cudgel in the governor’s race.
And all the proposals will need to be approved by the Legislature in the state budget — a complex process that is seen as the true test of a governor’s priorities.
“I philosophically believe that government is intended to do good, invest in capital infrastructure. That’s what we’re here for,” said Liz Krueger, a Senate Democrat who leads the Finance Committee. “But I really do need to understand where we’re getting the money to pay for it.”
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