Not that things haven’t been real for Gov. Kathy Hochul, but as the calendar turned to January, they are taking on a distinctly defined shape. That sharper reality will become clear on Wednesday as the state’s unelected governor delivers what she hopes will be the first of many State of the State speeches.
So, as New Yorkers absorb Hochul’s view of the state’s condition and its challenges, many will also be taking their measure of the woman who ascended to the chief executive’s office five months ago, succeeding Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned as impeachment became likely.
The address, typically a wish list that presages the release of the governor’s proposed budget, will give Hochul an opportunity to set up her election year by laying out a vision for the state – a statement of public purpose. She will have plenty of targets.
First, unfortunately, is the ongoing pandemic. In 2022, we still have to worry about Covid-19. Between the mutations of the virus and the related problem of vaccine refusal, most New Yorkers – most Americans – have learned by now not to predict when the pandemic will end.
What they do know today is that the Omicron variant is spreading faster than it can be contained. Even though it seems to be a lesser health threat than previous variants, it still has the capacity to overwhelm hospitals, risking the well-being of patients who need care for any serious illness.
That means that Hochul’s approach must be nuanced enough to maintain healthy state and regional economies while giving the state and its lower governments the flexibility to respond appropriately to conditions that can quickly change.
A lot of people won’t like that. There are those who unaccountably want the state to butt out of its role in dealing with a serious public health threat, but under both Hochul and Cuomo, the state has generally responded well to this emergency. She shouldn’t back away now. Nor is there any reason to think she will.
Hochul may want to keep as much psychological distance as she can between herself and Cuomo, but she needs to address the problem of ethics in state government. In particular, that means dealing with the overwhelming worthlessness of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, known as JCOPE. The commission lacks independence and, as such, is a toothless tiger.
Cuomo was supposed to be the governor who wrestled ethics into the Albany culture. It didn’t happen. Now, it’s Hochul’s job, and she has shown interest in creating a new agency to oversee the conduct of state officials.
Related to that, Hochul should continue to champion a stronger commitment to transparency through more rigorous laws on open government and public records. As it stands, too many public entities use the state’s Freedom of Information Law to block public access. That needs to end.
Other important areas for her to consider are the environment, especially as a changing climate upends conditions around the country. With special attention to New York’s Atlantic coast, the state needs to be prepared for extreme weather, including hurricanes and the flooding they can produce. Beyond that, the state needs to meet its own ambitious goals for reducing its carbon footprint.
As always, the economy will be in the governor’s sights. Helping in that regard is the federal infrastructure money flooding into the state and, regionally, the possibility that the Buffalo-Rochester area will win designation as a $100 million tech hub under the federal U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. But with Democrats firmly in charge of state government, Hochul also faces the challenge of finding a way to keep and attract businesses in a state regarded as unfriendly to business. Solving that is the key to New York growing again.
The state should also try again – and better – at creating a system for New Yorkers to vote by mail in all elections. Other states – blue and red – do it successfully. There’s no reason New York can’t make it work, as well.
A state constitutional amendment on the matter failed in November as Republicans campaigned against it, but their fears are grounded in the national party's refusal to engage with voters outside of the Trump bubble. If they are wise, they will see that voting by mail will force them to do better and, thus, help them find their way in a blue state. Coincidentally, it will also serve the interests of voters, including Republicans.
As Hochul aims for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination this June, Wednesday’s speech can help light her way. That work may even begin with a bit of stagecraft as she delivers her address in the State Assembly, the first time it has been given there in more than a decade. Such a sign of respect for the legislative branch may help her implement her agenda and smooth the way toward a full four-year term.
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