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Hochul delivers State of the State, with long priority list for 2023

New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the state capitol Aug. 31, 2021.jpg
WAMC Screenshot
New York Governor Kathy Hochul speaking at the state capitol Aug. 31, 2021

After becoming the first woman sworn in for a full term as New York Governor, Democrat Kathy Hochul will deliver her State of the State address on Tuesday. It comes as she prepares to unveil her budget plan, and as she stands by her embattled pick for the state’s next chief judge. Joining WAMC’s Ian Pickus to preview the governor’s address and the legislative session is capitol reporter Jon Campbell of WNYC.

So, as we prepare for Governor Hochul’s State of the State address, what's on her agenda this year?

Well, we've heard dribs and drabs. She laid some of it out, broad themes out in her inaugural address on January 1 and really, there's three major things that she's focusing on. One is affordability, another is public safety and the third is economic opportunity and what form those topics take, we'll see in her state of the state address and later in her budget address, which is really when the rubber meets the road. That'll come later this month. So, you know, public safety is a really interesting one that we're going to be looking at because she's facing a lot of pressure. She faced a lot of pressure from her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin to take more action on, say the state's bail reforms of 2019 and she has this opposite pressure from the Democratic legislature to kind of leave those in place and not introduce more subjectivity into the bail process. So, what she lays out, that's something that we're going to be watching very, very closely and it's these lingering effects from the campaign trail where this was a huge, huge deal. Now is her opportunity to kind of set a new path.

Well, what have Speaker Carl Heastie and the Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said about criminal justice this session?

They have talked more about addressing root causes of violence and crime and street crime in particular and they're starting to kind of put together their own look at what they might want to do that is certainly going to be different from what Republicans want to do and could be different from what Kathy Hochul wants to do. So, there was this summit on Thursday at the National Action Network in New York City with Al Sharpton where they started to talk about some things that they might want to see be done on public safety, but that was held in private. We don't know exactly what was discussed, but these are things that we'll see start to play out. And really, it's going to start with the governor's address on Tuesday.

What kinds of changes have taken place in the Assembly and the Senate since the last time lawmakers were here after the November elections? Any big personnel changes, leadership dynamics, that kind of thing?

Well, we still have the same leaders. It's Andrea Stewart-Cousins in the Senate. She's a Democrat from Yonkers. She's the Senate Majority Leader, has been the Majority Leader since 2019. Carl Heastie is the Assembly Speaker. He's a Democrat from the Bronx. So, the leadership at the top level stays the same, but there's been some pretty key committee changes. Deborah Glick is a Democratic Assemblywoman from Manhattan. She for years was the higher education chairperson. Now she's going to be the Environmental Conservation Chairperson. We have a new Environmental Conservation Chairperson in the Senate as well, Peter Harckham from Westchester. So, the top leaders, the three people in the room are going to be the same. It's Governor Hochul, it's Speaker Heastie and its Majority Leader Stewart Cousins.

Let's talk about a member of the minority for a moment, Lester Chang, a Republican from question mark, the Democrats would say. So as we speak, he is a member of the assembly, yes?

Yeah, absolutely. So, he defeated Democrat Peter Abbate in Brooklyn. Peter Abbate was a three-decade incumbent who did not expect to lose, quite frankly and Assembly Democrats did not expect him to lose. But he did lose on election day. But there are these questions about whether Lester Chang actually lived in Brooklyn for 12 months leading up to his election, which was the minimum requirement in every district here. So, there's, quite frankly, a decent amount of evidence that suggests that he was living in Manhattan rather than Brooklyn at the time, right around that time period. So, there is this push among some Assembly Democrats not to allow him to remain an assembly person and they could take a vote to remove him from office. It's going to be a big topic for Assembly Democrats to decide whether they want to remove him or whether they want to essentially overturn an election after the fact.

How come this wasn't raised until after the election result?

Well, I mean, it depends on who you're asking. I mean, Republicans would say it's because the Republican candidate won but I actually spoke to Carl Heastie, the Assembly Speaker, and he said, well, it's a little more complicated than that. He was subbed in as a candidate; he didn't petition his way onto the ballot. There was another candidate who did and then decided not to run, so Republican leaders were able to swap Lester Chang in and that kind of limited the challenge period. But there still was a period to challenge his residency prior to election day, and that would have worked its way through the courts, essentially and the board of elections. So, you know, there are democracy issues at play here. There are residency issues at play here and Assembly Democrats are going through trying to figure out what they want to do.

As we speak here in early January, what do you think is going to be the one or two issues that are debated over, haggled over through the end of the session? There's usually a couple of sticking points where the legislature and the governor are not on the same page, especially through budget season. What do you see as the key issues this year?

Well, I think there's a few different things. I mean, we mentioned public safety and I think it's pretty clear at this point that the governor may push for further changes to the bail reform. She was able to win some last year and that's something that Democratic leaders are going to push back on. They stand behind the bail reforms and the purpose for the bail reforms, which from their view, was to avoid criminalizing poverty, essentially. So, that's one area. I think the area of taxes could be one too. You're going to have progressives, already, they're pushing for higher taxes on the wealthy. Governor Hochul has come out and said, “Well, you know, now's not really the time to increase taxes.” So, that's kind of a perpetual issue at the Capitol, and it should be one this year as well and I think that's another area where you might see some divergence between Governor Hochul and the left wing of the party.

And speaking of that, you've set up very nicely a conversation about Hochul’s pick for Chief Judge. She is facing a lot of pushback from the left right now; where do things stand?

Yeah, Governor Hochul, she nominated a man by the name of Hector LaSalle for Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, which is kind of selling the role short, quite frankly. Not only would he be the top judge on the state's top court, one of seven members of the top court. He would also be in charge of the entire judicial branch in the state and that's this huge web of state and local courts, and it's a really, really big role. But progressives in the Senate, you know, the Senate has to confirm LaSalle’s nomination and already there's more than a dozen members who have said, we're going to vote no, because they don't like some of his decisions. One decision went against the union, another decision went in favor of a pro-life, anti-abortion center that was under investigation by the State Attorney General's Office and these progressive senators, and even some moderate senators have said no, we're not going to vote in favor of LaSalle’s nomination. So, his nomination is on the rocks. Governor Hochul has not given up on it at this point. He would be the first Latino to serve as the state's Chief Judge. Latino leaders are lining up behind him, trying to get his nomination over the finish line. But at this point, it looks like if it is going to happen, it might have to be done with Republican support and that's something that makes a lot of Democrats uneasy.

So, here's a question for you. She got a list of seven nominations to pick from, of which LaSalle was one. If she pulls that pick back, do we get a new list of seven, or does she then pick from six remaining?

You know, I don't really know the answer to the question and that's because this is unprecedented. We haven't been in this situation before in the time where the current judicial nomination system has been in place, we haven't seen this and that's been decades. So, we're in kind of uncharted water here and of those seven candidates, one of the things that that has angered progressives, and those on the left of the party is that Governor Hochul was selected somebody who has a background as a prosecutor. He's the Presiding Justice of the mid-level appeals court in Brooklyn and Queens right now, but before that he was a prosecutor in the Nassau County District Attorney's Office and there is a lot of prosecutorial representation on the Court of Appeals right now, and progressives are looking for perhaps a defense attorney, somebody with a history of being a public defender or a civil rights attorney. That's what they want to kind of balance the viewpoints on the court. So, that's another reason why they're angered by this nomination.

OK, let's do a lightning round. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli has pre-audit authority back in some form. Break that down for us.

Yeah. So, this was something that goes back to the time of Andrew Cuomo, the former governor, and it has to do with contracts over a certain amount of money at the State Office of General Services and the SUNY system. So, that was removed the comptroller's pre contract audit authority. So, before these contracts are signed, the comptroller used to be able to come in and pre-audit and say, 'Hey, OK, everything looks good. Go ahead with this contract.' The governor, Governor Cuomo, he rescinded that as part of a deal with the legislature. They've been pushing to reinstall that ever since and Governor Hochul did sign it into law that said she made some tweaks to the bill, the legislature agreed to it to kind of increase the threshold and decrease the amount of time that the comptroller may have to pre audit but the comptroller seems to be on board with it.

New York State is losing its longtime Budget Director Robert Mujica, who's taking a position in Puerto Rico. Does that loom large in the upcoming budget process this year? He's somebody who's been in the upper echelons of New York State government for quite a while.

Yeah, absolutely. Robert Mujica was not only Kathy Hochul’s Budget Director, but also Andrew Cuomo’s Budget Director, and before that worked for Senate Republicans on any number of budget negotiating issues. So, he was a longtime steady hand that was involved in these kinds of budget negotiations. He obviously had a big role in crafting Governor Hochul’s new budget proposal, which we'll see in a couple of weeks. But he's going to Puerto Rico for a role with the Puerto Rican government oversight board, and he won't be there, and we don't know who his replacement is yet. So certainly, that does loom large because he is a towering figure in budget negotiations and we don't know who will replace him yet.

What do you think the impact of New York State being between Health Commissioners is right now?

Well, I mean, listen, we're in the midst of a potential triple-demic, right? We've got the flu, we've got COVID. I mean, it is a difficult time for health regulators still. We are still in the pandemic. So, that said the health department is a huge agency with a lot of non-appointed professional staff that keep the trains going, but, you know, anytime you don't have somebody in the head role and don't have a permanent person in that head role, it's at the very least an image problem. But, you know, we'll see how long it takes the governor to appoint a new health commissioner.

What are the differences from your perspective in the Capitol a year and a half into Governor Hochul’s tenure compared to the years that we spent with Governor Cuomo?

Well, certainly, even with all we just said about the friction between Governor Hochul and the legislature, it is a different relationship than it was with Governor Cuomo. I mean, it was adversarial and some of that adversarial nature is necessary because it is a system of checks and balances. It is supposed to be adversarial on some level, but Governor Hochul has struck a more collegial tone. She did just sign a huge pay raise for legislators to the tune of 29% or $32,000. That is something that maybe Governor Cuomo would have held out to trade something for it because everything gets traded for something in Albany and we didn't see that happen with Governor Hochul. So, generally she is trying to strike a more collegial tone. I think most lawmakers would say they prefer working with Governor Hochul over Governor Cuomo but that's going to be put to the test in the coming weeks, particularly with this Chief Judge nominee.

OK, last thing: True or false, the Buffalo Bills will win a championship before the New York Mets win their next championship?

Oh, that's a good question. Well, I mean, they're going to have an opportunity to do it first. I am a huge Buffalo Bills “Homer”, as you know, and I am relieved to see the good news about Damar Hamlin who suffered cardiac arrest on the field this week. So, I'm going to, sure, I'll say yes. Let's ride the good vibes here and let's say, sure the Bills will win before the Mets but maybe that's more of an indictment of the Mets, historically speaking, then applauding the Bills here.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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  • Each governor annually issues a “State of the State.” This is required by the state Constitution, “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.” From that one sentence, New York’s State of the State addresses have evolved into a long speech – usually around one hour – in which governors use the bully pulpit to largely congratulate themselves and lawmakers on the great achievements that been made.
  • New York Governor Kathy Hochul has a busy agenda for 2023, including a new state budget, dealing with calls for criminal justice changes and getting her pick for Chief Judge through the State Senate. As lawmakers return to Albany, the state is also moving ahead with a new comprehensive climate plan and confronting an uncertain economic outlook.
  • Opposition to Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice for chief judge, Justice Hector LaSalle, is only growing, and some say she should withdraw his name and pick someone else.