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What Wasn't in Hochul's 2023 State of the State Agenda


Gov. Hochul delivers her 2023 State of the State (photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


In her State of the State speech last week, Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, outlined her agenda for the year ahead, pledging continued action on public safety, an ambitious housing plan, major investments in climate action, mental health care, child care, and more. But even as she outlined many planks in her policy agenda, further outlined in a 275-page booklet, there were several areas where she only provided a vague notion of something she plans to tackle and a number of prominent proposals she did not include – ideas that elected officials, advocacy groups, and think tanks are now pushing to be part of her coming executive budget for the next fiscal year or to be passed by the Legislature.

The governor’s State of the State set the stage for the policy, budget, and legislative battles ahead. It included many of the proposals that Governor Hochul and New York City Mayor Eric Adams jointly announced in December in the “Making New York Work for Everyone” action plan, which was developed by the ‘New’ New York panel of experts, planners, business and community leaders, and others. The plan, which received broad praise, detailed 40 different initiatives aimed at improving the future of New York City and its regional economy with measures to boost business districts, create jobs, transform public space, build housing, improve mass transit, and more.

The governor’s agenda will be fleshed out in more granular detail in legislative language and her executive budget proposal, which is not only a spending document but a vehicle for non-fiscal policy and legislation. In the weeks ahead, various stakeholders will advocate for their own priorities, some with competing interests and others that dovetail together. And those interests cover the gamut on everything from mental health policy to housing, transit, worker benefits, immigrant protections, criminal justice reforms, and climate policy, to name a few.

Here’s a look at some of the critiques of the governor’s 2023 State of the State agenda, prominent policies she did not include, or areas where she did not offer a concrete plan but pledged to take action in the future.

Republican Response
Former U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, a Long Island Republican who ran for governor against Hochul last year, issued the party’s response to her State of the State. “Hochul’s State of the State address was another small swing and a big miss,” he said in a video posted online.

He highlighted ten items on the Republican agenda for this year, most of which formed the core of his gubernatorial campaign platform and many of which are non-starters with Hochul, the Democratic Legislature, or both: term limits for statewide elected officials; a state of emergency over crime; rolling back a series of criminal justice reforms (including bail reforms, Raise the Age legislation, parole reforms in the Less is More Act, the HALT Act limited solitary confinement, and discovery law changes) and giving judges discretion to use a dangerousness standard when setting bail; lifting the state cap on charter schools; reversing the state ban on fracking and approving new gas pipeline applications; the “largest tax cut in the history of the state”; rehiring public sector employees who were fired for refusing to take the COVID vaccine; firing district attorneys “who refuse to enforce the law”; and refusing to meet with any campaign contributors soliciting business from the state.

State Senate Republicans, who remain in the minority versus a Democratic super-majority in the upper house of the State Legislature, also issued a “Rescue New York 2023” agenda this month that includes a long list of legislative priorities covering public safety, workforce development, education, mental health, infrastructure, taxes, business regulation, climate policy, and more.

Besides the proposals mentioned by Zeldin, it specifically calls for items including additional funding for law enforcement and harsher penalties for gun and drug offenses, increased funding for mental health programs and opioid overdose prevention, permanently capping state spending increases at 2% annually, and making more deposits in the Rainy Day Fund, $200 million in tax relief for working families by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, a $464 million tax cut for small businesses, and creating a Legislative Budget Office, to name a few.

NYCHA
The New York City Housing Authority’s fiscal woes were compounded by the pandemic. While it already has a $40 billion capital need because of decades of underinvestment, its operating finances have also been hobbled as more than 73,000 households owe about $454 million in back rent. In a budget presentation in December, NYCHA officials warned that without that revenue, it may not be able to make necessary repairs as required under a 2019 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Though some of that gap could be made up by the state’s pandemic-era Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), tenants at NYCHA remain at the low priority end of the list for payments. The program’s funding has dried up and applications will no longer be accepted after January 20.

Though Hochul mentioned NYCHA-related accomplishments from last year -- passage of the Preservation Trust program to raise funds for public housing repairs at many developments -- in her State of the State speech, she did not otherwise include any new proposals or make any mention of it in her accompanying State of the State policy book. Hochul and Mayor Adams did recently announce a plan to replace 335 elevators at 20 NYCHA developments, part of a $300 million funding agreement signed in April 2022 with the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. 

Public housing was similarly absent from the recent $1.7 billion federal budget deal signed by President Joe Biden. NYCHA supporters hope that Hochul’s executive budget will include new funds for NYCHA repairs to the tune of at least several hundred million dollars in the next fiscal year.

Housing Legislation
While many housing advocates praised Hochul’s new “Housing Compact,” which commits to a sweeping plan to build more housing across the state, some expressed disappointment that she did not make mention two high-profile pieces of legislation to prevent evictions and ease access to housing for those living in homelessness or facing the threat of it.

Advocates are chiefly pressing for two bills: ‘good cause’ eviction and a new Housing Access Voucher Program.

Good cause eviction, sponsored by State Senator Julia Salazar and Assemblymember Pamela Hunter, is among the top priorities for progressives and advocates and has been gaining momentum in Albany. The bill would give tenants greater protections against both evictions and large annual rent increases. Landlords have been ardently opposed to the bill, while Hochul has only said it is something she is looking at without offering a position. The absence of any semblance of the bill in her agenda signaled to many that she does not support it.

The housing voucher program, proposed by State Senator Brian Kavanagh and former Assemblymember Steven Cymbrowitz, would allocate about $200 million in its first year for vouchers to help homeless families and those facing homelessness. It’s also high on the agenda for many legislators and advocates but Hochul has not supported it. Last year she expressed concerns about the cost of the program, disputing the Legislature’s estimates, but legislators pushed back saying that the cost of the program would be capped each year.

Cea Weaver, campaign coordinator for the Housing Justice for All coalition, issued a scathing critique of what she called a “gutless” housing plan. “Instead of investment in public housing, we got handouts for big developers. Instead of vouchers to help more New Yorkers afford homes, we got zoning changes. Instead of real tenant protections like Good Cause, we got more wishing and hoping that the private market will solve everything,” she said in a statement responding to Hochul’s State of the State. The coalition has proposed a five-point plan which, besides good cause eviction and the voucher program, includes other proposals that they believe will create equitable housing in the state.

Meanwhile, the Community Housing Improvement Program (CHIP), which represents owners and managers of tens of thousands of rent-stabilized buildings in New York City, is making a concerted effort for a “vacancy reset” that would give landlords the ability to reset rents on tens of thousands of vacant rent-stabilized units. The ‘reset’ would keep the apartments in the rent-regulation system but allow increases to bring rents level with neighboring rents, which they say is necessary for landlords to be willing to invest in renovations of dilapidated apartments.

MTA Finances
Among the glaring omissions from the State of the State was a plan to fill a structural hole in the MTA’s budget. The MTA’s finances were thrown into deeper disarray by the pandemic and it has gotten by on $16 billion in federal aid that will be spent through the 2026 fiscal year.

The agency’s annual operating budget for 2022 was about $19.4 billion – $7.2 billion from taxes and subsidies, $6.9 billion from fares and tolls; and $2.9 billion in federal aid.

Ridership on subways buses and commuter rails has not yet reached the same levels seen before the pandemic, and may never or not for years as commuting and work patterns have changed, affecting crucial fare revenue. The agency also has a recurring structural deficit of about $2.5 billion annually.

In November, the MTA released its latest budget presentation, proposing a 5.5% hike in fares and tolls. That is up from the usual 4% raise that went into effect every two years but wasn’t implemented in 2021 because of the pandemic. But despite revenue from higher fares and tolls, operational savings and other measures, the agency still needs another $600 million. MTA leadership, particularly Chair and CEO Janno Lieber, has repeatedly called for state and city leaders to rethink how the MTA is funded in order to more fully include transit as a core service in the state budget.

In the State of the State, Hochul punted on any solutions to the MTA’s dire straits. “We all know that the MTA is the lifeblood of the New York City metro region, and we will continue to invest in and ensure its long-term fiscal health,” she said without offering any specifics. Those could be offered in her executive budget, or simply pushed into coming months of negotiations with the Legislature.

The lack of a plan has already invited critics. “If Governor Hochul is as committed to a ‘reliable’ and ‘affordable’ MTA as she says, she must reject a fare increase to $3,” said Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, a Queens Democrat and lead sponsor of the “Fix the MTA” legislative package that would raise revenue for the transit authority and increase service, in a statement. “And if she wants to continue characterizing the MTA as ‘world-class transportation’ – something that most New Yorkers would not agree with – she must fund greater frequency across the entire system, and make buses free.”

“The MTA is poised atop a financial precipice: it is our responsibility as State legislators to ensure it returns to sound financial health,” said State Senator Andrew Gounardes, a Brooklyn Democrat who is lead sponsor on two of the bills in the “Fix the MTA” package, in a statement. “This speech was a missed opportunity to adequately address its funding needs, and commit to a robust plan to ensure the MTA is able to fully realize its potential in the coming years. I was disappointed to not see more policy regarding our public transit, as well as disappointed to see that no mention was made of de-carbonization in the Governor’s plans for the MTA.”

Taxes
Citing predictions of a recession, Hochul said in her speech that she would not raise income taxes this year. She’s also previously expressed concern about out-migration from the state, which many blame on the state’s high tax rates though there is limited evidence of significant tax-related flight among the wealthy. The state last increased taxes on high-earners and corporations in 2021, to raise up to $4 billion in revenue, with those increases set to expire in 2027.

Hochul’s pledge not to further raise income taxes on the highest earners sparked a backlash from progressive legislators and groups that have long argued for additional tax increases on the wealthiest residents of the state to pay for social programs.

Eight democratic socialist legislators – State Senators Julia Salazar, Jabari Brisport, and Kristen Gonzalez, and Assemblymembers Zohran Mamdani, Phara Souffrant Forrest, Marcela Mitaynes, Emily Gallagher, and Sarahana Shrestha – spoke out after the speech in favor of higher taxes on the uber wealthy. “While Governor Hochul’s State of the State address commits to crucial investments for New Yorkers, it does not go nearly far enough,” they said in a joint statement. “Her remarks failed to acknowledge New York’s dire need for new revenue through increased taxes on the ultra-rich. Instead, she presented fiscal sleight-of-hand through unfunded half-measures and non-solutions.”

“Increasing revenue through fair taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers is sound fiscal policy that will strengthen our economy and make New York a better place to live for working people,” said Nathan Gusdorf, executive director of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group. Without new revenue, the state will be unable to make massive investments to achieve universal child care, high-quality public education, affordable housing and reliable public transit, all of which are on Hochul’s agenda. “Until the Governor supports new revenue, her plan to rebuild New York will not come to fruition,” he said. 

The Invest In our New York coalition has urged the governor to approve several new taxes to raise billions of dollars in new revenue and pay for education, universal child care, universal health care, affordable housing, climate action, mass transit infrastructure, and more. That includes a progressive income tax, an heirs tax, a capital gains tax, a billionaires tax, a restored corporate tax and a Wall Street tax. “Lawmakers must prioritize passing policies that guarantee extreme wealth is taxed and those dollars are reinvested in our neighborhoods, instead of protecting millionaires and billionaires benefiting from a rigged system,” said the Invest in Our New York campaign, in part, in a statement.

Republicans and some fiscal monitors have argued against higher taxes, insisting that they will drive wealthy New Yorkers, who make up the core of the state’s tax base, out of state.

“Fortunately, Governor Hochul highlighted the need to stem outmigration. She wisely committed to not raising the personal income tax this year,” said Andrew Rein, president of Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit fiscal watchdog, in a statement. “New York’s competitiveness will be well served by restraining spending to ensure that the 2021 personal income tax increase sunsets on schedule.”

“Before it’s too late, New York’s governor and Legislature should embrace fiscal policies grounded in the three Rs of restraint, responsibility, and reform,” wrote E.J. McMahon, founding senior fellow at The Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, in a policy brief. “Spending should be reined in, taxes reduced, and economic competitiveness restored as a top priority.” McMahon called on the governor to phase out the 2021 tax increases beginning in the 2023 fiscal year.

More broadly, The Empire Center released a detailed policy guide, dubbed “The Next New York: Renewing and Reforming the Empire State,” which contained 11 expert research papers with 63 reform priorities for the state to consider. The guide covers the state budget, public safety, public education, Medicaid and health care, mental health, the energy sector, transportation and transit, housing, the public-sector workforce, voting access and election integrity, and government transparency.

“We launched this ambitious research project to chart a path forward for our state, combining fresh ideas with proven approaches that can work again,” said Tim Hoefer, Empire Center’s president and CEO, in a statement. “In the wake of the pandemic disruption, the time is overdue to embrace new approaches to growing policy challenges—and to dust off some proven approaches that can work again. It’s time to shape the Next New York.”

Build Public Renewables Act
Hochul announced a series of green energy initiatives and climate-related bills in her State of the State. But she did not speak of the Build Public Renewables Act, which would allow the New York Power Authority (NYPA) to own and build new renewable energy projects, among other provisions. 

The BPRA garnered significant support last year and was approved by the State Senate but did not get a vote in the Assembly. Instead, amid significant criticism Assembly Speaker Carl Heasite convened a hearing on the bill after the legislative session had ended to examine it further. Climate activists argue that the bill is essential in meeting the state’s emissions-reduction targets set by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019, which would require reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030 and by 85% by 2050 from 1990 levels.

Charter School Cap
In the lone debate of the general election for governor, Hochul said publicly for the first time that she supports raising the state’s cap on charter schools in New York City. Currently, there are  460 charter schools allowed across the state – including a cap of 290 in New York City, which was met in 2020.

Most Democratic legislators and the teachers union have opposed raising the cap, while charter school advocates and charter-friendly elected officials say more charter schools are needed to meet an outsized demand for them in the city and offer alternatives to failing traditional public schools. But Hochul did not mention charters in her speech or the policy book, leading to criticism from charter school proponents.

Overdose Prevention
In her speech, Hochul proposed several measures to stem overdose deaths, which skyrocketed during the pandemic even after increasing for years prior. They included a new interagency task force dedicated to the issue, greater access to drug testing technology, and continuing investment in life saving initiatives. But she did not include any support for the first two Overdose Prevention Centers that opened in New York City in November 2021 (and claim to have prevented more than 670 overdoses that could have been fatal) or additional such centers across the city and state. The two existing centers are seeking more funds to run around the clock, 24/7, instead of their current more limited hours.

“The Governor’s answer to the worst overdose crisis in New York’s history is to increase penalties for fentanyl and drug-induced homicide laws that only advance the War on Drugs, rather than the fight to save lives,” said Jawanza Williams, director of organizing for VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group. “Most egregious of all: Hochul’s complete omission of the leadership and support she could provide to the nation’s first Overdose Prevention Centers by utilizing executive action and Opioid Settlement funding.”

Criminal Justice Reform
In her State of the State Hochul pledged to increase resources for alternatives to incarceration and reentry services for those leaving state prisons. She also announced greater investments in law enforcement and proposed changes to the state’s controversial bail law to allow judges to jail more people pre-trial.

Criminal justice advocates responded with concern about further rollbacks to the bail reforms first passed in 2019 as well as the governor’s planned investments in police and prosecutors.

Additionally, there are several bills on the agenda for reformers that Hochul did not mention. They include the Clean Slate Act, sponsored by State Senator Zellnor Myrie and Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, which would automatically seal a person’s conviction record once they become eligible; the Treatment Not Jail Act, sponsored by State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, which would ensure that people with substance use disorders, mental health issues, and other disabilities are given treatment instead of being incarcerated; and the Fair & Timely Parole and Elder Parole bills, which would make the parole process easier and make it easier for older inmates to be paroled.

There is also a package of sentencing reform bills that advocates are expected to pursue this year.

The Legal Aid Society pointed out that the governor proposed increasing funds to hire hundreds of more prosecutors across the state without commensurately offering more resources to public defenders. “Funding one side of the justice system without equal or greater investment in public defense addresses at best half the problem and exacerbates the deeply rooted inequalities at the root of the criminal legal system,” Legal Aid Society said in a statement.

Advocates are also urging the governor to support the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, which would decriminalize sex work, among other measures to protect sex workers.

Education advocates are also pushing for the Solutions Not Suspensions Act, which would put in place restorative approaches to replace punitive school discipline practices which disproportionately harm students of color and those with disabilities.

Health Agenda
Last year, the governor pledged $20 billion to bolster the state’s health care system including funding retention bonuses for health care workers, increasing the minimum wage for home care workers, cost-of-living adjustments for human services workers, investments in health infrastructure, and aid to struggling hospitals.

This year, she promised more improvements including a “Future of Health Care” Commission to examine the system and make improvements, more capital investments, expanded Medicaid coverage for preventative health services, improving the state Essential Plan, protections against medical debt, expanded access to primary care, prescription drug price transparency, expanded flexibility for health care providers, expedited approvals for health care infrastructure projects, modernizing health data reporting, and more. But much of that agenda is not spelled out in her policy book, instead promising details to come, including fixes from the to-be-named commission.

Among advocates’ criticism of the governor’s health care agenda is that it fails to adequately address the state’s home care worker shortage, which is the worst in the entire country. Hochul allocated about $7.7 over four years to increase the home care worker minimum wage by $3 an hour.

“As New York’s population ages and home care workers continue to leave the sector, we are clear that a significant pay increase — 150% of minimum wage — is the only solution to stem the shortage,” said Ilana Berger, co-director of New York Caring Majority, an advocacy coalition, in a statement. “If she is truly committed to making New York the most age-friendly state in the nation and lifting up a workforce made up of women and people of color, the Governor must change course and invest in the home care system so that workers can receive the fair wages they deserve in the upcoming budget.”

Bill Hammond, senior fellow for health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy, recommended several reforms to the state’s health care system that Hochul should undertake, chiefly reigning in Medicaid costs. The Medicaid budget is expected to be about $93 billion in 2023, a 76% increase over 10 years. The state’s share of that is about $33 billion, up 57% in that same period.

“The program’s broadening scope has magnified the effects of its pre-existing structural flaws,” Hammond wrote in a policy brief. “Its practice of paying substandard fees now compromises access and care quality for millions more of the state’s residents. Its vulnerability to inept management, fraud and political manipulation puts billions more of the public’s money at risk.”

Hammond urged the governor to implement a series of reforms, including tightening income-screening procedures for Medicaid recipients, among various other measures; making commercial coverage more affordable, including by eliminating taxes on health insurance under the Health Care Reform Act; establishing an independent pandemic review commission, rather than the outside consultant that the state has hired to assess its response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and rolling back or eliminating the state’s “certificate of need” law, which regulates the creation of health facilities, which he said is far too restrictive.

Immigrant Protections
Immigrant rights groups were left disappointed by the governor’s State of the State, which only proposed funding for an immigrant retraining program but not other benefits or protections specifically for the state’s immigrant population.

Advocates have been pushing for a $500 million Unemployment Bridge Program, modeled after the Excluded Workers Fund that the state created during the pandemic to provide relief to workers, mostly undocumented immigrants, who were ineligible for federal aid.

The program would provide workers with $1,200 a month if they lose their jobs, on par with the state’s unemployment insurance program that they are ineligible for. According to the Immigration Research Initiative, it could benefit up to 750,000 eligible workers, including 180,000 self-employed and freelance workers.

“The Governor’s speech fell far short of what’s needed for immigrants, communities of color, and working families across the state,” said Theo Oshiro, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group, in a statement. “While paying lip service to tackling the very real affordability crisis that New Yorkers face, the Governor again failed to mention and support crucial measures for which our communities have been clamoring.”

Oshiro also urged the governor to expand access to health coverage for immigrants, through her proposal to improve the state’s Essential Plan coverage and by approving the Coverage for All bill that would provide state-funded health coverage for New Yorkers, including the undocumented, that make up to 200% of the federal poverty line.

Advocates also called on the governor to support the Access to Representation Act, which would provide the right to legal representation to immigrants in immigration court at a cost of $100 million.

“While we are grateful for Governor Hochul’s commitments to some key programs, they are far from enough to ensure that all immigrant New Yorkers, including the over 30,000 newly arrived asylum seekers, have the support they need to integrate and thrive in New York State,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of New York Immigration Coalition,” in a statement. He also pushed for the New York for All Act, which would prohibit local and state law enforcement from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

Penn Station Area Redevelopment
Though the State of the State included funding for various infrastructure projects, one that was conspicuously absent was the redevelopment of the Penn Station area in Midtown Manhattan.

The project, originally proposed in one form by former Governor Andrew Cuomo then adjusted somewhat under Hochul, would build about 10 towers around the transit hub, creating 18 million square feet of new building space with offices, housing, and retail space. The entire project is expected to cost about $22 billion, $7 billion of which would come from the state, which will also provide about $1.2 billion in tax breaks to real estate developers. The state is hoping to receive federal funding to cover at least half of the $7 billion.

The governor is forging ahead with the controversial project despite opposition from local groups, multiple lawsuits, uncertainty about its emphasis on new office space amid the work-from-home revolution, and questions from fiscal watchdogs about its financing structure. Even the developer for the project, Steven Roth, chief executive of Vornado Realty Trust, has expressed concerns about new development in the current economic climate, though he insisted that the company is committed to the Penn Station project. “I must say that the headwinds in the current environment are not at all conducive to ground-up development,” Roth told investors in an earnings call, according to NY1.

Freelancer Protections
At the end of last year, Hochul vetoed State Senator Andrew Gounardes’ and Assemblymember Harry Bronson’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which would give freelancers the right to written contracts, timely payments, a redressal process for nonpayments and penalties for employers who violate those rights. The legislation was modeled after a successful law that took effect in New York City in 2017 and has helped freelancers recover millions in payments.

Hochul, however, said the state law would be an undue financial burden on the state Department of Labor when she vetoed it — among several bills with some fiscal impact that she vetoed arguing they needed to be passed in order to be factored into the state budget, and part of a much longer list of the bills Hochul vetoed last year, many of which are likely to be taken up again by the Legislature this year. Hochul did not include the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in her State of the State agenda and has not otherwise proposed any other protections for freelance workers.

Voting Rights
In 2021, voters defeated ballot referendums that would have amended the state constitution to allow for same-day voter registration and universal absentee voting. As is required for all constitutional amendments, the two proposals were passed in two consecutive legislative sessions before heading to the ballot. But lawmakers did not reintroduce the proposals last year and Hochul did not do so in her State of the State. In fact, her policy agenda does not contain any election and voting-related proposals.

Aid-in-Dying Measure
Advocates are optimistic that this year the Legislature will approve the Medical Aid in Dying Act, which would allow terminally ill patients to request and use medication to end their lives. The bill, which has received increasing support from lawmakers over the years, is sponsored by Assemblymember Amy Paulin, who is the newly appointed chair of the Assembly's health committee, and State Senator Brad Hoylman. 

Behind the push for the legislation is the national advocacy group Death with Dignity, which launched its 2023 advocacy campaign earlier this month across the country, including in New York. “We are confident that our decades of work fighting for the right of everyone to have options in the face of terminal illness will bear fruit,” said Dr. Peg Sandeen, CEO of Death with Dignity, in a statement. “This is an issue that is widely supported by Americans across the political spectrum. We believe that every American has the right to safe, effective healthcare—on their own terms and with a full range of options available to them, including the option of medical aid in dying.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to include a section on the Medical Aid in Dying Act. 



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