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Gov. Hochul to deliver budget address Wednesday as session accelerates

Governor Kathy Hochul speaks on February 27th, 2022
Image capture by WAMC
Governor Kathy Hochul speaks on February 27th, 2022

By Albany standards, it has been a rocky start to the New York State Legislative session with Governor Hochul’s pick for Chief Judge rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and ongoing disagreement about how to approach public safety. Hochul delivers her state budget plan this week, accelerating the horse trading that has long defined the sprint to the new fiscal year that begins April 1. WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with Capital Correspondent Karen DeWitt.

Well, it's been a few weeks since we spoke last in the session got going. Where do things stand today?

Well, we're getting ready to hear Governor Hochul’s budget address on Wednesday, and that's one of the big events of the year, partly because this is the time of the year where the governor has a lot more leverage over the legislature to get her items passed. She can put policy items in and kind of force the legislature to pass policy items that they might not want to otherwise and say, 'Well, if you want this in the budget, if you want this for your district, if you don't want the budget to be late, then you better agree to these things.' And so, I think we're going to see Governor Hochul put a lot of unrelated policy items into the budget, and that's what we'll be looking for. We already know about some of her proposals that will be in there that probably won't be that controversial. Hochul is a Democrat.

The Democratic led legislature has wanted to create 800,000 new housing units over the next several years, to spend a billion dollars more on the really neglected mental health care system in New York State by putting in more inpatient beds, more community-based treatment, more money for child care, a lot of these things probably can be agreed on. But there's probably some things that she's already said she's going to do, including that very lightning rod law, the 2019 bail reform laws, she wants to revise them yet again and the legislative leaders are always been resistant to that and they're still pretty resistant to that.

Yeah. It's such an interesting dynamic, Karen, because you've got the governor and then minority Republicans more or less in agreement about changing those laws. Meantime, the Democratic Assembly Speaker and Senate Leader have not signaled any interest in changing it.

That's right. Well, the governor just went through an election that should have been, it should have been not as close as it was. It was very close election, and her Republican opponent, Lee Zeldin made a big deal about crime and the bail reform laws. And so, I think that she wants to look like she's actually acting to respond to that, because it wasn't just Republicans that were concerned about that, a lot of Independents, a lot of suburban voters are worried about crime. So, she wants to show that she has concerned about it. What she wants to do is change the law, so that judges have more discretion setting bail in more serious crimes. The bail reform laws got rid of most forms of cash bail for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, but there's always been kind of a question, I think even judges have some questions about, 'Well, when can we set bail?'

There's a lot of rules and because of some revisions they did last year, now a lot of the rules can slip and she's trying one more time to make it more clear and say, “Look, if it's a serious crime.” Then the judges can decide to set bail, even though the prior law maybe suggested that they shouldn't set bail. So, I don't know. I don't know if she’s just muddying the waters more, but she's certainly trying because there is a problem, most people seem to agree, there's a problem with a small group of criminals who are repeat offenders and who are taking advantage of some of these criminal justice reforms. And so, she's trying to hone in on those people, the real criminals, without punishing some person who doesn't have money, who is accused of committing a minor crime and then the bail is set so high that they end up sitting in jail for a year for something that they might not have done. And that was the original intention of the bail reform law.

And we should say, the Democratic leaders have said it's really too soon to know if the reforms from 2019 have worked at all. There's a legislative hearing happening as we speak, where they're supposed to get more data on the bail reform laws. But my question is, with the deadline of April 1 for potential changes, will there be enough data to get an on-time budget and add that to the conversation about what Governor Hochul might want to include in the spending package outside of the budget?

Well, I know, that's right. We have had some data, but then everybody disagrees about what the data means. So, this is almost like, again, in many of our arguments, political arguments, the facts hardly matter. But yeah, there's going to be a big hearing on Monday about bail reform, and I'm hoping there will be some genuine information on it. But yeah, the governor has leverage in the budget. Last year, she held up the budget for several days, I think it might have been nine days because she wanted the bail reform changes, and eventually the legislature caved. So, I think that is what she's hoping for now. I don't think she's going to get immediate agreement from them. We've already had indication that she won't, but the question is, what is she going to need to trade for that? And that's going to play out over the next couple of months.

Well, what kind of leverage does she have? Obviously, she's started a new four-year term, she has been duly elected. I know the latest Siena College poll showed pretty wide support for the agenda she outlined in the State of the State. Does she have a cudgel here to us?

Yeah, if she wanted to, she could submit the budget to the legislature with all her policy things in it and say, 'Take it or leave it, if you don't pass it, we shut down the state, we walk away, and you're to blame.' That has not been used, but it's certainly been a threat in the background as early as during the tenure of Governor David Paterson and certainly Governor Andrew Cuomo in his first years would mention it and make it clear that that is something that he might do. So, the governor does have the power to do that. Other times of the year, the end of the session, other months they don't really have that power, but this is the one time that the governors do have that power and the legislature, I think, in the end, usually has to submit at least some things that they don't want to do.

Well, let's bring into the conversation now the status of Judge Hector LaSalle, Hochul’s pick four Chief Judge. This really adds an interesting dynamic to the budget talks, because this will be wrapped up, presumably, in those conversations over the next couple of months.

Yeah, it's super fascinating to political insiders, maybe not so much to the general public, mostly because no one can really figure out what Governor Hochul’s strategy is here. She nominated Judge Hector LaSalle. He's the head of a mid-level appeals court. The Senate has to confirm the nomination. A number of progressive Democrats in the Senate felt that some of his opinions indicated he might be too conservative. They say the Court of Appeals has been leaning conservative for several years. They want that trend to end. They signaled that to the governor last summer. Nevertheless, the governor decided she liked Hector LaSalle the best, who by many accounts seems like a good moderate judge, but there's no such thing as moderation and politics these days, so your opinions get twisted around. But anyway, the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, they had a five-hour hearing. It sounded like pretty fair hearing, I listened to all of it. They voted him down. Two voted for him, 10 against and seven voted without recommendation to advance his name. So clearly, he does not have the support. The governor has said, that's not good enough. Advise and consent means the full Senate has to vote.

Senate leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins says 'No, everything in the Senate goes through the committee and if the committee rejects something, it doesn't go through.' And Hochul keeps saying that she's going to do something about it. She might sue but she hasn't decided yet what to do, and that is just drawn out this narrative, and not really to the governor's benefit for weeks and weeks. I feel like I'm kind of perplexed as to why she's doing this. Does he have a larger plan? Is she just mad because she thinks that this is a good judge and she doesn't want to give in? I mean, I guess part of the contrast for me is covering both of the Cuomo’s; Mario and Andrew Cuomo, and George Pataki, who had three terms as a Republican governor. They always had a long-term strategy with where they were going with certain things. It might not always be apparent, but it would be over time, and Hochul seems more like a Governor David Paterson and even before him, his predecessor, the short-lived Governor Eliot Spitzer, where they would kind of just put their foot down on something and they didn't really care about the political implications. If they thought it was right, you really couldn't convince them otherwise. Of course, it's too early to make any assessment of what kind of Governor Kathy Hochul will be, but it's just interesting to observe this and see the contrast, certainly with her predecessor, former Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Yeah. Well, let me ask you a question that I know you don't have the answer to. Hochul says the LaSalle nomination, although it failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, ought to go to the full Senate and she's hinted, as you say, about suing to pursue that end. The Senate Leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins says that would be an end run and almost a constitutional crisis, calling into question the separation of powers between the branches. And from her perspective, the committee, with majority Democrats, that's her party, has rejected the nomination. So, it's hard for me to understand why she would bring that to a full Senate vote and ignore the committee's advice. I know Judge Lippman told you that he thinks Hochul is right, but who is right? 

Well, that's for the courts to decide. If she goes to court, actually to the Court of Appeals is probably going to have to decide it, because I'm not sure what other venue it would go to. And yeah, you bring up a good point, Ian. even if Hochul were to win in court and goes before the full Senate, there's no guarantee that LaSalle would win confirmation. I mean, the Republicans were in the minority had said, they sympathize with Hochul’s plight. They think LaSalle is a good judge. But would they put their names on the line and their political futures on the line to side with Hochul on a vote that then somebody could go come and primary them about say that they're too close to this democratic governor? So, I don't know if they'd go as far as to actually vote for LaSalle on the floor. So that's what I mean about it being kind of perplexing. What does Hochul win in this? If she wins in court then yes, I was right. It should be the full Senate, she sets precedent. But it just plays out this narrative and plays out tensions with the legislature, particularly with the Senate at a time when she really needs them to help her get her budget together.

It's so interesting. I wonder what you make of it. Former Governor Andrew Cuomo, of course, was happy to go to war with one or both houses of the legislature when he needed to. Governor Kathy Hochul has really positioned herself as a different kind of leader, a bridge builder. She goes out of her way to talk about the other leaders as being friends. Where does this standoff, as we speak, leave her relationship with Senate Leader Stewart-Cousins right now?

Well, it's hard to say. Can they put this aside and work together? Certainly, from my sources, the senator is kind of perplexed about this, wondering why she's doing this, why she's picking this fight. But certainly, I don't know if they’re still friends, but I think it does put attention into the relationship that maybe wasn't there last year when they were all kind of working together to pick up the pieces after Andrew Cuomo had to resign in disgrace, and to just keep going and to lose as few seats as possible, and win as many seats as possible in the 2022 elections. They were all united on that and now, you see where the cracks are. I mean, I guess, really, the larger issue is Hochul is more of a moderate Democrat. She is not getting along right now with the progressive Democrats over this judge and that is going to be where the tensions lie in the budget. They all hung together for a year but now, you know, many of the policy cracks are showing.

Lastly, Karen, what will you be watching closely for on Wednesday with the budget address?

Well, I guess I would say, with past governors I'd always try to look through and see some kind of hidden thing that they're trying to put in and hide. I guess I'd be looking for that. Trying to spend the day as quickly as possible, looking through the fine print, seeing if there's anything that's missed. Also, just seeing how the governor reaches out to the legislature. We know where the venue is, it's going to be the kind of small ceremonial office room in the Capitol where she's going to give her presentation. That doesn't leave room for all the 212 legislators to attend. So, her kind of not speaking directly to them. Is that sending a message? So, I guess I want to see how those dynamic plays out.

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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