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Promising ‘New Era’ of Collaboration and Sweeping Agenda, Hochul Delivers First State of the State Address


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Governor Hochul delivers her 2022 State of the State (photo: Darren McGee/Governor's Office)


Governor Kathy Hochul delivered her first State of the State address on Wednesday, laying out a vision for New York's future as the state enters another year of pandemic and economic recovery. Facing a primary in June, Hochul's speech outlined the agenda of her first — and possibly only — full year in office.

Speaking to the State Legislature and all New Yorkers from the Assembly Chamber — a return to tradition but a break from her predecessor, disgraced former Governor Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in August — Hochul sketched a plan she said would shepherd the state through the medical, economic, and social perils of the pandemic and confront long-standing needs in climate resilience, infrastructure, and government ethics.

It was the first time a woman delivered the annual address that is required by the state constitution.

The venue was one of several ways in which Hochul, a Democrat from the Buffalo area, made a point to distinguish herself from Cuomo, though she never mentioned him by name. Since taking office, the former lieutenant governor has made efforts to usher in a culture shift in the executive chamber, state government, and throughout New York politics, embracing a spirit of transparency, government ethics, and cooperation.

"To my colleagues and partners in government, for too long Albany's executive and legislative branches were fighting each other in that arena. No more. That ends now," Hochul declared Wednesday. She promised a "new era" of deference to "the rightful role of this legislature" and without "petty rivalries" with the mayor of New York City – both apparent references to Cuomo's notorious leadership style.

"And the days of three men in a room are clearly over. Just ask the majority leader," she added with a nod to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who was among the few top state officials sitting near the standing Hochul on the dais. Also there were Attorney General Letitia James and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. A small crowd of legislators was socially-distanced in the chamber. Missing was Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who was watching from his Albany residence after a positive COVID-19 test result.

"My fellow New Yorkers, this agenda is for you," Hochul said. "Every single initiative is filtered through the lense of how to help you and your families."

The agenda includes over 200 initiatives, including some grand ideas – like growing the healthcare workforce by 20% over five years; replacing the embattled state government ethics body, JCOPE; exploring a new "inter-borough express" transit line connecting Brooklyn and Queens; and building or preserving 100,000 affordable housing units over five years. It includes tax breaks for small businesses and middle class individuals, families and homeowners; greater access to public colleges; and investments in workforce development and childcare; funding and new models for gun control and violence mitigation; and reversing the historic damage of infrastructure projects on neighborhoods of color; among many others.

"We are going to jumpstart our economic recovery by being the most business friendly and worker friendly state in the nation," she said. That includes a promise to invest millions to develop urban centers of commerce, and promote a range of sectors from finance to retail to tech and healthcare.

Several of her proposals are to continue or tweak initiatives already underway, but a majority will unfold before the end of the legislative session and the gubernatorial primary, both in June. Some are things she can do on her own, many she needs legislative approval for, a number of which are dependent on the shape of the next state budget, which is due by the April 1 start of the state fiscal year. That spending plan will be heavily influenced by Hochul’s first Executive Budget, due later this month, and subsequent negotiations with the two houses of the Legislature, both of which are controlled by Democrats.

"I think many of those priorities coincided with ours," Stewart-Cousins, a Democrat from Westchester, told reporters after the speech. "It is good to have partners in government who understand fundamentally that there are things that we can do together."

"The governor outlined numerous proposals in her address, and in the coming weeks we will be reviewing them so that together we can improve the lives of all New Yorkers," Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said in a statement. "In the Assembly, we have and always will put families first and fight for the everyday needs of the people we represent."

A major theme of the address was targeting the public health and economic effects of the pandemic by expanding and supporting critical workforces, like healthcare and education, and matching industry needs with labor market supply.

One of Hochul's goals is to expand the healthcare workforce by 20% in five years with a $10 billion state investment, including $4 billion in wage supplements and bonuses and $2 billion in capital infrastructure. It includes changes to state regulations to allow doctors and nurses from out of state to practice in New York and tuition benefits and stipends for people training in the field.

Part of Hochul's workforce objective is expanding support for workers and job-seekers, like training, accreditation, and childcare. She plans to "reboot" the state's workforce development office by folding it into Empire State Development Corporation "so it can build stronger relationships with employers." The effort includes sending more funding through regional economic development councils, tying workforce funding to job placement, and making it easier for businesses to qualify as MWBEs.

It also means improving access to public higher education. Hochul proposed making the state's tuition assistance program (TAP) available to part-time students, adding childcare on every SUNY and CUNY campus, and increasing enrollment in public higher education to 500,000 students by 2030. A capstone initiative is her "Jails to Jobs" plan to support employment for formerly incarcerated individuals upon release. It entails training parole officers in career planning, more voluntary in-prison employment, more vocational training programs in prisons, and restoring TAP to incarcerated individuals. She also wants to pass the Clean Slate Act, a measure that allows certain criminal records to be sealed after a sentence is completed, something criminal justice reform advocates have been pushing for.

The address also included a series of financial relief measures for individuals and small businesses struggling to weather the pandemic.

Hochul proposed phasing in a $1.2 billion tax cut to 6.1 million middle-class taxpayers two years earlier than currently planned, and a $1 billion property tax rebate to 2 million middle-class homeowners. She wants to expand access to childcare for 100,000 families either through the Build Back Better federal package working its way through Congress, or by expanding eligibility at the state-level, and invest $75 million in wages for childcare providers.

For small businesses, she proposed $100 million in tax relief to close to 200,000 businesses as well as tax credits for farm owners (as a boon to bars and restaurants, Hochul also wants to reinstate to-go alcoholic beverages, a popular measure from the first year of the pandemic).

Hochul discussed major infrastructure projects like reconstructing Penn Station, advancing the Gateway Project, and construction at LaGuardia Airport and the Second Avenue Subway. Her "Interborough Express" idea would repurpose an existing 14-mile freightline from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to Jackson Heights, Queens, to connect the two boroughs, shorten commutes, and spur economic development. Hochul said she was ordering an environmental review of the project, which is inspired by the Regional Plan Association’s Triboro RX plan (that also includes extension into the Bronx).

Hochul also committed to ameliorating the damage caused by some 20th Century urban design and transportation infrastructure that divided and polluted neighborhoods of color, with a set of four projects, in the Bronx, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse. Each aims at reconnecting severed communities; a proposal to cover parts of the Cross-Bronx Expressway with public amenities would help bring together neighborhoods divided for decades and could reduce the effects on vehicle pollution in the area, according to the policy book released by the governor's office.

Several of the climate goals Hochul touted are already in progress, like her call to increase the Environmental Bond Act to $4 billion (a measure that will go before voters for approval this November) and clean energy projects to eliminate 80% of New York City's power plant emissions by 2030. She restated objectives to create more electric transit capacity and pass legislation to make all new building construction zero-emission by 2027.

Infrastructure also includes the digital – Hochul is planning $1 billion to expand high speed internet. It also includes facilitating the production or preservation of affordable housing through changes to land use rules, hotel conversation, accessory dwelling units, and replacing the 421-a tax abatement. The five-year, $25 billion goal to create or preserve 100,000 units of affordable housing also includes 10,000 units of supportive housing for homeless New Yorkers and other vulnerable populations.

“We are especially pleased to see Governor Hochul propose the Inter-borough Express, which will utilize existing railroad tracks to create new transit services in Brooklyn and Queens - and has long been a priority for RPA," said Regional Plan Association President and CEO Tom Wright in a statement Wednesday. "Additionally, her proposals to generate more multi-family housing near transit and the legalization of accessory dwelling units will create more vibrant communities while reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

"We are heartened by Gov. Hochul's words of concern and compassion for homeless New Yorkers, and pleased that she recognizes some of the pressing problems that unnecessarily cause homelessness as well as some important solutions like supportive housing," reads a statement from Shelly Nortz, Deputy Executive Director for Policy at Coalition for the Homeless. "Her forthcoming executive budget proposal will illuminate the adequacy and soundness of her proposals."

Hochul did not mention the January 15 expiration date of the state's eviction moratorium in her speech. Nortz called for the governor "to appropriate sufficient funds to keep New Yorkers facing eviction in their homes, provide adequate ongoing rental assistance to prevent and address homelessness for all New Yorkers, and extend the eviction moratorium." Coalition for the Homeless and other advocates have also called on the state to offer hotel rooms for homeless New Yorkers during the pandemic.

She invoked New York City's decaying public housing stock – home to 400,000-plus residents and in need of over $40 billion in capital funding – promising to take action without offering specifics. "We can no longer ignore the plight of NYCHA residents living in sometimes deplorable conditions," she said. "The lieutenant governor and I will work with the city of New York and this Legislature on concrete action this session." The governor's policy book makes no mention of NYCHA or public housing policy.

Good government advocates lauded Hochul's proposal to scrap and replace the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, the state's ethics watchdog universally criticized for having little bite and being under the influence of the elected officials who appoint it. Under Hochul's proposal, the replacement body would have "a rotating board of five members made up of the 15 state-accredited law school deans or their designee" and be subject to the state's Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Law.

"We believe this new independent ethics commission is by far the most important reform the Governor can champion to restore New Yorkers’ faith in their state government and curb abuses of power and conflicts of interest," wrote Reinvent Albany, a government ethics advocacy group, in a statement.

Earlier this week, the governor unveiled proposals to limit statewide elected officials to two terms and prevent them from earning non-government income, two other measures commended by government transparency and anti-corruption advocates and widely seen as an attempt to distance herself from Cuomo and prevent abuses of power like he committed.

Hochul's policy book contains legislative changes to protect voting rights and make it easier to cast a ballot: a state-level Voting Rights Act to combat voter suppression; moving the voter registration deadline to the constitutional minimum of 10 days from 25; and requiring poll sites on college campuses. She is also supporting the repassage of constitutional amendments to create same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting, measures that were defeated by voters this past fall after passing two consecutive legislative classes.

To promote public safety and combat a rise in gun violence, Hochul wants to triple the resources of the State Police gun-tracing efforts and direct state funding to local law enforcement. Notably, she proposed an "Interstate Gun-Tracing Consortium," similar to a central promise of Mayor Eric Adams when he was campaigning last year, that would be housed in the State Police and work with local law enforcement and neighboring states. The consortium will be led by Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin, working with Adams and law enforcement agencies at a level of "unprecedented cooperation," Hochul said.

​​Mayor Eric Adams commended the speech in a tweet Wednesday afternoon. He wrote: "Congratulations to @GovKathyHochul on a powerful #StateOfTheStateNY address. We have to meet this moment and deliver results for New Yorkers. The largest city in the country is ready to get the job done." Adams didn’t go into any specifics, but he is expected to testify on Hochul’s agenda and budget at the annual state legislative hearing on cities, likely in February.

Adams and Hochul are scheduled to appear together for an announcement in lower Manhattan on Thursday afternoon.

State Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy issued a statement Wednesday afternoon criticizing Hochul's handling of the pandemic, public safety, small businesses, and other issues, and compared her and her policies to her disgraced predecessor. "She is already running an administration less transparent than the Prince of Darkness himself by hiding her meetings with the lobbyists and special interests she has raised more than $10 million from in the last three months," he said, using a nickname for Cuomo.

Langworthy decried high taxes, government overreach, bail reform, and population out-migration. He did not offer a vision or agenda for change, however, beyond electing Republicans in the upcoming elections.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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