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After late budget, key issues remain for New York state lawmakers before session ends

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

It happened more than a month behind schedule, but New York state has a new budget. The $229 billion package agreed to by Governor Kathy Hochul and fellow Democrats who control the legislature includes changes to bail reform laws, the minimum wage, and new requirements to shift people to clean energy. The budget also includes a crackdown on illegal cannabis shops, and it will allow 22 more charter schools. But Hochul’s ambitious housing plan fell off the table. For analysis, we speak with WNYC capitol reporter Jon Campbell.

To begin with, this budget was more than a month late. How come?

Well, there's a few reasons for that. One, broadly it's because there was a lot of policy in this budget. In New York State, the governor has the ability not only to put forward a spending plan, which is primarily what the budget is, but also to include many policy issues that some of which don't really have much to do with the fiscal realities of the state much at all and there were two in particular that really slowed down this process. One was bail reform, or should I say, kind of scaling back the bail reform measures that were originally approved in 2019. The governor essentially wanted to make it easier for judges to set bail in serious cases and she got that to a large extent. The legislature agreed to remove what's known as the least restrictive standard, which required judges to impose the least restrictive means to ensure somebody comes back to court. Now that least restrictive part of that is gone, and judges have a little more leeway in what they can and can't do within certain guardrails.

The other issue was charter schools. The governor wanted to expand New York City charter schools. She wanted to allow about one hundred and five more and they eventually reached a compromise where they would kind of revive what are known as zombie charters. These fourteen charter schools in New York City that had gone dormant or never opened in the first place. She got that. There will be fourteen new charter schools in New York City, and theoretically eight in the rest of the state, but the rest of the state wasn't at its charter school cap. So that's a little moot. But that really held up talks for weeks. I mean, the teachers union hates charter schools and did not want any expansion whatsoever. The Democratic legislature also opposed it significantly for weeks and they ultimately agreed to this zombie charter compromise.

We talked earlier in the winter after the governor released her proposal in February. How close is the final package to what Gov. Hochul originally proposed?

Well, on some areas, it's close. She did get a bail reform measure that she was looking for, or at least substantially what she got what she was looking for. But the big, big difference and this is a huge difference was her housing plan was not in this. I mean, one of her two major priorities in the budget was a housing plan that she says would have created 800,000 new units across the state, in part by requiring every town, city, village in the state to hit a growth target. So downstate, that meant you had to increase your housing stock 3% over three years, upstate it was 1% over three years. And if you didn't, then the state could step in essentially override local zoning and approve big multi-unit apartment complexes and that really riled up particularly local government officials in the New York City suburbs who fiercely protect their right to local control and often have zoning policies that discourage multifamily apartment complexes, such as what Governor Hochul was looking to do. And they pushed back very, very hard. Legislators in Albany. Democratic legislators from the suburbs pushed back hard, as well as Republican legislators and it ultimately fell out entirely. The governor pulled out the entire housing plan rather than agree to a compromise that in her view would have watered it down. And now that sets us up for the housing issues to be a major part of the post budget legislative session in Albany, which only has a month left and likely into next year's budget negotiations as well.

Yeah, Gov. Hochul said she'd be talking with lawmakers about the housing issue in the weeks that remain before the session is over. Is there any likelihood of salvaging that housing proposal before June 8?

I think that would be very, very surprising and the governor herself said that she anticipates this will probably bleed into next year and next year's budget negotiations. And part of that is she doesn't really have much leverage anymore. She has a lot of leverage in the budget process. She's the person who puts out the original proposal. She has leverage about what goes in, what goes out, what she can hold out for in negotiations. She doesn't have that after the budget and if lawmakers don't want to do anything, they can just go home at the end of the session. So, it is likely to bleed into next year. But what the governor and legislative leaders have said is well, we can start negotiating. Now we have more time, this is a big weighty policy and we can in theory, get the ball rolling into next year. But you know, next year is an election year for state lawmakers and that is going to be an even more difficult sell for them, particularly if they have to go to their voters afterward and say, 'Hey, we passed this, here's why we think it's good' at a time where voters in the suburbs may be angry about what they passed. So, the electoral politics certainly complicate things next year.

Despite that one-person press conference on April 27 announcing the budget deal, this is famously three people in a room. Did the legislative leaders, the Senate and the Assembly, get any big wins in the budget?

Well, they got big wins by what was not in the budget. Primarily that includes the charter school proposal. I mean, it is significantly less than what the governor was looking for, about 10% of what she was looking for. So that was a win from their perspective and the teachers union publicly congratulated them. Another big win is New York City buses. There was a faction of Democratic legislators that are trying to push the state toward free public transit when it comes to buses in New York City. What they ended up getting was a pilot program. So, for up to a year, there's going to be five free bus routes in New York City. One in each borough. It'll be up to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to decide which route in each borough will be free. That was a big deal for them. They want to test out free buses and see if that's something that can work in New York City and then perhaps expand from there in the city, maybe in the state. So that was a big win that they were able to get.

What do we know about the relationship between Governor Hochul and the legislative leaders. Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. right now, on the other side of this protracted budget negotiation?

Well, we know that publicly, all sides say that their relationship is fine that this is business, basically. This is government and they have their disagreements and they hashed them out and everything is okay. But what we do know is that this is the latest in a line of clashes, really between the governor and the legislature in some form. I mean, you go back to earlier this year, the Senate rejected Governor Hochul’s pick for the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals. That's the top judicial position in New York State. She wanted a judge by the name of Hector LaSalle to be the chief judge and the Democratic Senate said no, I mean, for the first time ever, the Senate rejected a governor's pick for the top court and that was a significant blow to the governor. So, publicly they're saying the right things and saying that their relationship is fine. And certainly, compared to their relationship with Andrew Cuomo, when Andrew Cuomo was much more sharp elbowed aggressive, and that rubbed a lot of lawmakers the wrong way. Certainly, their relationship is very different from that. But listen, there are signs of stress. There's no doubt about it.

Let me ask you a philosophical question. We heard a lot over the past several weeks from some of the principals in the negotiations that New Yorkers don't care if the budget's late, they care what's in it. What is your reaction to that line?

Well, the first thing I would say is the state budget isn't like the federal budget, right? We've lived through federal budget fights where they miss a deadline, and there's an immediate government shutdown and essential employees are the only ones who come in and maybe some parks and historic sites shut down and tourists stop and we've lived through that, right? In New York State, it's not exactly the same thing, right? I mean, there's not this immediate shutdown. There are still appropriations from the previous fiscal year that kind of keep the state of float and then the legislature passes the short-term extenders that makes sure the state can keep paying bills and keep paying its employees, importantly, and that's what we saw happen this year. So, there's not a ton of practical effect from a budget that's a few weeks late or a month late in this case, but they were very quickly butting up against the school board budgets that have to go out for vote, and they need to know how much money they're getting from the state. By the way, that's another win for legislators and the governor, they boosted school funding to $35 billion this year. I mean, that is a significant jump. And also, cities, large cities, New York City is putting together its budget right now and they needed to have clarity about how much money they were getting to shelter asylum seekers, and how much money they might have to pay to keep the city transit system afloat. So, we were getting really close to practical implications from this late budget, but they passed it on Tuesday was the final vote and things seem to be okay there. So, there's some truth to that, to what you said. But you know, Governor Cuomo, for example, he used late budgets as a symbol of government dysfunction, and there is a deadline, right? There's an April 1st deadline, and when you don't make it, then government's not functioning is exactly how it's supposed to be.

So, we've talked about the housing plan, which may or may not get talked about over the next month. Are there any other big issues that you'll be closely watching before the session is over?

There's one in particular known as the Clean Slate Act, and that is a bill that would wipe out felony and misdemeanor convictions a certain period of time after the sentence is completed. And the idea there being that once you've been rehabilitated, once you've completed your debt to society, that you shouldn't be essentially branded with a scarlet letter for the rest of your life. I mean, it makes it very difficult to get housing, it makes it very difficult to get jobs. And the idea there is that they would wipe it clean automatically or perhaps through an application process. And the governor and the legislative leaders, they all seem to be on board with the general concept, but there's a lot to negotiate about timeline and how quickly and maybe are there are some crimes that wouldn't apply. So, I think that is definitely going to be a big issue in the post budget legislative session, which goes through early June.

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.