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Gov. Kathy Hochul has long to-do list as New York’s legislative session begins

 New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.
WAMC screenshot
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaking during a COVID-19 briefing on Sept. 30, 2021.

Now that she has secured a full-term, 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. Speaking with WAMC’s Ian Pickus for a preview of the legislative session is our Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt.

So, before we talk about 2023, let's recap how we got here. What effect do you think the November elections will have on the way things go this year?

That's right. I know. I was thinking about 2022 because I knew that I was going to be talking to you. It just seems like every year lately is like 10 years. So many things happened. This time last year it began with the Omicron surge. We were semi locked down again. The governor who, as you mentioned, only got elected to office this November, was actually in office for a whole year before she was elected, more than a year because she replaced former Governor Andrew Cuomo who had to resign in scandal, way back in August 2021. So yeah, she's already done one budget. The biggest thing that happened in 2022 though, well, there were three. Two were major US Supreme Court decisions; one was Roe v. Wade being overturned by the Dobbs decision and New York under Hochul beginning the process of a constitutional amendment to enshrine the right to choose abortion and to state law. Also, New York's 100-year-old concealed carry law for concealed weapons was struck down and Hochul and the legislature had to respond to that by crafting a new law, which is kind of falling apart in the courts. They keep ruling against it. We also had the mass shooting in Buffalo at a supermarket that killed 10 people and led to changes like strengthened Red Flag Laws and banning the purchase of semi-automatic rifles for anyone under 21. And then, we had the whole election campaign where the governor raised and spent $45 million and it was still the closest race in about a quarter century with Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin really gaining a lot of ground over the issue of fear of crime. So, really a lot happened in the last year. I feel like even I can't remember it all.

So, how does all that factor into this year? What is on Governor Hochul’s list for 2023?

Well, you know, for all of that, and all of the campaigning, which she mostly focused on gun control democracy, strengthening abortion rights. She hasn't laid out really much of an agenda. So, I'm looking forward to the State of the State to see exactly what she has. I'm sure, Ian, you remember the Cuomo years where he would have about dozens of proposals, I'd say 100 but it was practically that and every day for 10 days leading up to the State of the State, he tried to make a big deal out of each of them and it was all very planned out. Certainly, she doesn't have that style, for both good and bad. We do know that she really wants to work on affordable housing, because there's an affordability crisis. She’s talking about doing a $25 billion, 10-year plan, but to do that they need to revive an expired tax break for developers, it's known as 421A, because without it a lot of the wealthy development companies don't have incentive to build any affordable units. Hochul’s also talking about trying to break local suburban zoning laws that keep out a lot of multifamily housing, so that's going to be quite a challenge for her. And I think some of the other things that she's going to be dealing with that are unpredictable are storms. That's a big role for governors now. I mean, look what we saw in Buffalo, seven feet of snow in November. The 36-hour blizzard over Christmas that the death toll is up more than three dozen people. And the other unknowns, COVID, is it going to intensify? Everyone is now is talking about this XBB variant of the Omicron Coronavirus that is spiking all over the Northeast. So, I think you know, nowadays a governor can set out this agenda or that agenda, but there's so many unpredictable things in the world, that a lot of it is kind of just you know, planning for the unforeseeable.

Well, let's talk about personnel for a moment. We know she's losing a New York State Health Commissioner, the New York Budget Director who will be taking a new job in Puerto Rico. Meantime, there's this ongoing question of whether her selection of a new Chief Judge will be able to get through the State Senate. As we speak, opposition has really been and growing to her pick. How does that shake out?

Yeah, I know that that judge pick seems doomed at this point. She got a list from the State Judicial Commission, who gives a list. That's how it's done in New York. They vet these various people that could be the candidates for the Chief Judge and she picked Hector LaSalle, a former prosecutor, former Assistant DA on Long Island. If he were approved, he'd be the first Latino Chief Judge in New York state history, that would be pretty significant. But progressive groups, unions say that he's too conservative, and they don't like some of his rulings that they say could be interpreted as anti-abortion and anti-union. And we now have Democratic State Senators saying that they'll vote against it, most prominently the Deputy Majority Leader Michael Generis. Hochul would need votes from Republicans in the State Senate because Democrats have the super majority, if she wants this judge to be confirmed. But the other wrinkle is that Democrats have the power whether to even put the vote on the floor and if they don't have the majority within their own conference, they may never put the vote on the floor and right now, I think they're trying to force her to back down and choose another judge. And right now, that that is not how she wants to start her first elected term as governor saying, oh, I made a mistake on a judge, here's another one. So, I think that is going to play out for quite a few weeks.

Meantime, the cast of characters in Albany will be largely the same. We know New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and the Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie are back in the legislature for the new term. How do you see the budget process playing out this year? We know there's a lot of economic uncertainty on the horizon, and the end of some federal influx of funds that has buoyed New York over the past couple of years. So, what will the budget center on this time?

Well, as one legislative source put it to me, “less money more fighting.” Last year they had all that federal aid and they were pretty much giving Hochul a break, where it was just a lot of uncertainty going on. But as you mentioned, Andrea Stewart Cousins, Carl Hastie, they're no shrinking violets. They are powerful people. They're not just going to do whatever Governor Hochul wants. They've asserted their power and the last few years, under former Governor Cuomo, they started to assert their power and then when nobody really was in power for the first year, you know, had the definitive power, they asserted their influence and they want to be a force. They don't want to play second fiddle to the governor. So, I think she's going to get pushed back on them. But right now, the state's finances are still okay. But if spending remains the same that it is, in the next couple of years, the state's going to face a fiscal cliff, because the spending is unsustainable. A lot of it is fueled by all the federal COVID aid that is running out. So, if they don't make a big decision this year, they're going to have to make some big decisions during the four years of Hochul’s terms, either cutbacks, or maybe right now don't add to spending so that you don't have to cut back in a couple of years. That always ends up being a very tense time between any governor and any state legislature, no matter what party, no matter who's governor, no matter who are the leaders.

Let me finally ask you about two words that have become shorthand for debate in New York politics, bail reform. Is there any sort of appetite among the majority Democrats in the legislature to revisit bail reforms of 2020 or to change anything this cycle?

It certainly doesn't seem like it and as you know, anybody who saw all the ads during the campaign, it was a big issue and that's why Congressman Lee Zeldin gained quite a bit of ground against Hochul, although he ultimately lost. The legislative leaders, they don't want to do it. They are both African American and it was disproportionately used against African Americans and more than white people. If you're white and you're convicted of a crime, you know, you're largely could make bail and get out of jail. African Americans would be stuck in jail and a lot of times they were innocent. So, there were very legitimate reasons to do bail reform and they don't want to just throw it away two, three years later, just because there's issues about increased crime that really have not been proven to be related to bail reform. They're probably more related to the pandemic most experts think. So, I don't know. Also, with Hochul not facing election again for four years, maybe that will kind of die down a little bit.

You mentioned COVID earlier in our conversation. I'm just wondering, as someone who's been in the capitol for so many years and covering all different administrations and governors and lawmakers, what's life like in the capitol these days after so many years of restrictions now?

It's very empty, Ian, let me tell you. I miss seeing colleagues. I miss the hustle and bustle of it. I expect in January more people will come back, but the lawmakers have placed more restrictions on the public and reporters. There are still sections of the assembly chamber that we're not allowed in that we used to be able to hang out in and catch lawmakers going to and from the chamber, catch the Assembly Speaker, but they're saying well, because of COVID, you're not allowed in there. So, I think it's a little bit more secretive. It's a little bit more quiet. There’s lot more Zoom going on. It’s a lot more remote and I think that all depends, will we get another wave of COVID? If we don't get another wave this winter, then maybe it'll start to be a little more normal and more people will be showing up in person, which it's just very helpful for everything to go better there.

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.