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Hochul’s policy agenda plays it safe in election year. But she offers plenty for everyone.


ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s lone State of the State before she appears on the ballot for a full term was loaded with proposals sure to be popular among voters.

But she mainly avoided a host of thorny issues that would prove more divisive and instead looked to rebuild the relationship with the Legislature that was torn beyond repair between former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers.

Case in point: She returned the speech to the Assembly chambers, known as the “people’s house,” after Cuomo eschewed the tradition for the more antiseptic convention center down the street.

Her speech was conciliatory rather than the combative governing style that marked Cuomo’s 11 years in office.

“What I am proposing is a whole new era for New York,” Hochul proclaimed.

“The days of governors disregarding the rightful role of this legislature are over. The days of the governor of New York and mayor of New York City wasting time on petty rivalries are over.”

Still, she stayed clear of offering any reforms to one of the biggest debates in state government: changing controversial bail laws that have bitterly divided Democrats and are likely to serve as Republicans’ main talking point heading into the November elections for governor and legislative seats.

Instead, she tried to focus on reforms to Albany and a litany of spending priorities in the wake of Cuomo’s resignation in August that rocked the Capitol and led to a new round of calls for bolstered ethics enforcement.

For example, she proposed term limits for statewide elected leaders, but she’s not the first one to do so.

It’s a common issue for governors to propose, and one that usually polls well. While it’s been the norm for governors in recent decades to trickle out dozens of proposals in the weeks before their speeches, it was the only subject Hochul chose to highlight in advance, helping to underscore her theme of a “new era” for Albany.

But her term limits pitch would not cover the state legislators who she has done everything in her power to avoid feuding with.

“Perhaps the governor was a little concerned whether she’d pay a political price if she asked for term limits for the Legislature,” said New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who’s challenging the governor in the Democratic primary.

What Hochul said

Most of the issues Hochul mentioned in her address are of the sort that political opponents aren’t going to gain much ground by attacking. Reducing the number of potholes and improving the infrastructure? Best of luck to any candidates who try to turn that into a negative.

As the rare governor to come into office with a budget surplus, Hochul, the former lieutenant governor, was able to pitch a whole lot of big-ticket spending plans that are sure to make voters happy if they’re enacted.

They include $100 million for small businesses; the acceleration of middle-class tax cuts that were due to occur a few years down the road; $1 billion for property tax rebates; and $3,000 bonuses for health care workers.

Even resuming the early-pandemic practice of letting restaurants sell alcohol-to-go — which was supported by 78 percent of voters in one industry-funded poll and whose only major opposition has come from liquor stores — gained a mention.

“It’s remarkably popular,” said Assemblymember Pat Fahy (D-Albany), who has championed that idea in the Legislature in recent years. “The restaurants are the true mom-and-pops, [and this] is a critical lifeline to get them through the winter.”

What was missing from the speech

At the same time, there were plenty of high-profile issues that have dominated headlines of late but didn’t even get a line in the 235-page briefing book that went into more depth than the governor’s speech.

Some of these omissions shouldn’t be terribly surprising to most observers: nobody predicted her to opine on subjects like single-payer health care or legalized prostitution in the speech.

But there were also some issues that will be facing state government immediately that gained nary a mention.

Hochul wants a new “overtime tax credit” for farmers who have faced rising costs since a recent mandate that they start paying extra money to employees who work more than 60 hours a week. The looming decision of whether this should be lowered to 40 hours, which a state board held the first three hearings on the day before Hochul’s speech, was not discussed.

Nor was the imminent decision on a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. At some point in the coming weeks, a deal to secure state aid for this project will become a top priority for Western New Yorkers who will need to beat back expected opposition from progressives and others who don’t think the NFL should be the state’s top budgetary priority.

Plenty of subjects relating to expanding access to housing were included. But the “good cause” eviction measure (which would make it more difficult to remove tenants) as well as the imminent expiration of the eviction moratorium (which Hochul has reportedly been privately lobbying legislators to let lapse) were not.

Most prominently absent, however, was the question of bail reform.

Republicans have made clear that they’re going to hammer on that subject through the year, and last year’s defeat of state Sen. Todd Kaminsky in the Nassau County district attorney’s election after Republicans assailed him for his work on the 2019 changes has made moderates more nervous about the subject than ever.

But there are plenty of Democrats who are very clear that they are opposed to any significant changes, guaranteeing heightened tensions in Albany no matter what position the governor might take on the issue.

Taking on crime

Hochul’s briefing book included her support of the “Clean Slate Act,” which would lead to more criminal records being sealed. And she also pitched a host of gun control ideas. But the exclusion of the one subject dealing with crime and criminal justice that has dominated headlines for nearly three years certainly bolsters the governor’s repeated promises to punt any future changes to the Legislature.

And that, both critics and supporters of the recent changes say, could very doom the possibility of any further changes to bail this session.

“If she’s not going to lead on that, I do not expect this Legislature which pushed all these changes and has led us in part to where we are to make those changes on their own,” said Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt.

“It was really positive that she focused on what actually creates community safety, focused on investments and community support and not focused on an expansion of pre-trial jailing,” said the Center for Community Alternatives’ Katie Schaffer, who supported the changes to bail.

The idea that the Legislature won’t act on the issue without a push from the governor is certainly plausible.

“There is no desire at this point to make any changes,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a press briefing Wednesday afternoon.

“The changes were long and hard-fought … We tweaked them to answer some of the issues that we saw come up, and … we can’t make [further] changes based on innuendo or hysteria or because it’s a political talking point.”

Anna Gronewold contributed to this report.

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