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Albany's poetry and prose

Mario Cuomo once famously remarked, "You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose." This metaphor, highlighting the shift from rhetoric to reality, applies to various contexts. A good example is the governor’s State of the State address. The governor’s State of the State is a requirement of the job. The state Constitution demands 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 the State of the State speech is delivered with much of the pomp found in the State of the Union address given by the President. The State of the State is delivered before a joint session of the state Senate and the state Assembly and is covered by media outlets across the state. The speech is typically delivered at the beginning of the legislative session and offers the governor’s vision and her plans to make the state better. Usually the one hour or so speech comes with a detailed policy book that outlines initiatives that the governor will advance.

The State of the State is the “poetry” of the governor’s agenda.

Her “prose” shows up in her budget address. Again, it is the state Constitution that requires that she submit “on or before the second Tuesday following the first day of the annual meeting of the legislature” a budget to the Legislature. (In the first budget after a gubernatorial election, the governor has until February 1st to deliver the budget plan.)

The budget presentation is where the rubber hits the road. Given the necessary level of details in a budget, soaring rhetoric is insufficient. The governor must make it clear what she proposes the state do, how much programs will cost, and how those programs will be funded.

Last week, Governor Hochul offered poetry while covering a wide range of topics in her third State of the State address. The media coverage tracked her overall vision: She focused on fighting crime yet said virtually nothing about the migrant crisis that has overwhelmed New York City. She cited the state’s need to build affordable housing but sketched out only a modest plan focusing on working with New York City. She made little reference to how she intended to offset the state’s looming budget crisis – unless actions are taken, the state is projected to run deficits over the next three years.

Her poetry was more detailed in the policy book that accompanied the speech. For example, she devoted a section to the worsening climate crisis and the need for a wide range of actions. Yet, she ignored the huge and mounting costs and how to pay for them. She’s not alone when it comes to ignoring the worsening climate crisis in New York and the staggering – and mounting – expenses to protect communities and to restore damaged infrastructure.

That topic, if it’s discussed at all, will be part of the governor’s proposed executive budget, due to be released on January 16th.

It is the governor’s budget plan that will dominate the first few months of the legislative session. Her plan is subject to public hearings for a month, then a largely secretive budget negotiation between the governor’s office and the leadership of the Senate and the Assembly. The final budget is supposed to be approved by April 1st, but in recent years that deadline was ignored. Last year, for example, the governor insisted that criminal justice changes be included in the budget, holding up the final deal and passage until the end of April.

There has been a lot of debate – correctly – that the state is facing a crisis that stems from the increase in migrants seeking new lives in New York. Over the past 18 months, 140,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in New York. How the state handles these new arrivals – in terms of providing housing, food, and opportunity – is undoubtedly an enormous task.

Yet, recent storms have caused enormous damage across New York. The two most recent storms have hit Long Island particularly hard causing incredible erosion of its south shore. Of course, damage goes far beyond coastal erosion and includes extensive flooding and other structural damages.

In the governor’s State of the State policy book, she devotes a section to “Protecting New Yorkers from Extreme Weather.” In that section, the governor discusses plans to protect homes – including buying out properties that are at risk – to update homes and buildings for hotter temperatures, to address coastal erosion, and to tackle aging dams that will be handling stronger storm surges.

Her plans, however, said little about how to pay for these – and other – proposals. So far, the governor has saddled climate damages onto New York taxpayers. But as these costs mount – and they will – the financial pressures will squeeze taxpayers as never before. Unless the governor devises another way – like supporting legislation to make the largest oil companies pick up these costs – a new crisis is brewing and it’s one that is only going to get worse. The prose in the governor’s budget plans may give policymakers a clue as to how she will tackle the climate cost crisis.

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.

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