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Commentary & Opinion

Governor Hochul’s 2022 “to do” list

This week, New York Governor Kathy Hochul delivers her first “State of the State” address. This speech is delivered annually and is modeled on the more well-known “State of the Union” address that the President delivers to Congress later this month.

The state Constitution requires that the governor “shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.” In modern times, governors have issued their recommendations in a speech, usually delivered on the first day of the legislative session. That’s January 5th this year.

Governors use the State of the State address to help frame what they believe to be the most important issues facing the state and their proposed solutions. The speech itself rarely gets into too much detail on how those solutions will work or be paid for (that’s left for the budget presentation), but the address does offer the governor the “bully pulpit” to focus legislators’ – and the public’s – attention on her agenda.

It’s a given that the governor will discuss the ongoing COVID pandemic and how she proposes to respond to it. Of course, that is appropriate, but there are other urgent issues about which the public needs to hear the governor’s plans.

Even though this year’s state budget looks flush – thanks to the various federal stimulus programs – the state’s finances were shaky going into the pandemic and without additional federal help the governor will need to put in place revenue measures to combat projected out-year deficits. It’s unlikely that this issue will come up in the address – revenues are usually discussed in the context of the governor’s proposed budget – but there are programs that are teetering on the financial brink right now and need her attention.

The most obvious is higher education. While the big public and independent universities are in reasonably good financial shape, the same cannot be said for four-year colleges and community colleges. Many of these campuses are on the ropes. Community colleges, in particular, have seen staggering loses in student enrollment and thus face serious financial problems.

The issue goes beyond educating the next generation – as important as that is. In many of the most hard-hit communities, local colleges are a significant employer and economic engine. Unlike many of the recent, highly touted, economic development schemes, public investments in higher education pay off in a big way. Letting the higher education system wither makes no sense.

New Yorkers need to hear how the governor will tackle the hemorrhaging budgets of New York’s four- and two-year colleges.

The governor ascended to the position due to scandals that forced her predecessor to resign. The prior administration’s unprofessional and unethical behaviors were allowed to go on unabated due to failures of ethical oversight. The governor has pledged to get rid of the state’s current ethics watchdog – the Joint Commission on Public Ethics – and replace it with something new and effective. Other watchdog offices, like the Inspector General need to be overhauled, as well.

New Yorkers can’t wait to hear the plans.

While COVID forces us to face the immediate dangers of a raging pandemic, climate change poses a far greater threat in the long run. For decades, the oil, gas, and coal companies knew of the dangers of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels but did nothing to restrain their activities or alert the world to the danger. Now a rapidly-heating planet threatens the world as we know it. It’s clear that money will have to be spent to mitigate and adapt to these threats. Let’s hope that the governor advances a plan that makes the climate polluters pay for the damages that they have caused.

China now refuses to accept wastes from the United States. The nation needs to enhance recycling programs to reduce the amount of waste it generates. Here in New York, the state will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its best recycling and anti-litter program --- the Bottle Deposit Law. Will the governor propose initiatives to modernize the law, including expanding the types of containers covered?

Recent elections have fully exposed New York’s flawed system of elections administration. Relying on the two major political parties to run elections in New York has resulted in cronyism, scandals, and an erosion of the public’s trust. Will the governor offer plans to move the system away from two-party control and to a system that relies on independent, non-partisan one?

COVID is not the only health threat. There’s another: The slow-moving pandemic caused by antibiotic-resistant infections. By mid-century deaths caused by antibiotic-resistant infections may surpass those caused by cancer. The COVID pandemic has underscored the need for forward thinking public health programs. We’ve learned we can’t play catch up on public health. Will the governor offer a plan to reorganize the state’s system of monitoring public health threats – most notably by focusing on the growing threat posed by antibiotic resistant microbes?

Lastly, New York’s sputtering, Byzantine court system more reflects partisan dealing making than a rational system. Will the governor advance a plan to reorganize the court system?

Those issues and more load up the governor’s plate. In a few days New Yorkers will finally know what this governor views as priority issues and how she plans to tackle them on behalf of all New Yorkers.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.