Gov. Kathy Hochul’s 6½ years as lieutenant governor served as an extensive listening tour of New York State. On Wednesday, Hochul delivered a State of the State address that showed she is attuned to New Yorkers’ chief concerns: living with the Covid-19 pandemic, the crisis in health care staffing, worries about crime and public safety and the exodus of residents to other states.
Many of the governor’s initiatives will please traditional Democratic constituencies, such as health care workers’ unions, green energy proponents and criminal justice reform advocates. At the same time, Hochul showed she is not captive to special interests on either the progressive or conservative extremes.
With a staffing crisis in health care aggravated by Covid-19, Hochul proposed a $10 billion investment to increase the state’s health care workforce by 20% within the next five years. Free tuition and retention bonuses are part of the plan. There is also a funding increase for direct care workers, a field that suffers from chronic understaffing due to low wages. Hochul made no mention of adopting single-payer health care, a dream of progressives.
Hochul proposed investing $1 billion to support the adoption of electric vehicles and up to $500 million in wind power projects and infrastructure. Several environmental groups praised the announcements, but hoped the governor would go further, such as proposing a carbon tax.
Hochul is recommending free legal assistance for New Yorkers who face eviction, as well as a $5 billion plan to build 100,000 units of affordable housing. Tenant advocates wanted more, such as an extension of the state eviction moratorium or support for a “good cause” eviction bill that would make evicting tenants more difficult. Hochul, balancing the concerns of renters with economic harm done to property owners by the eviction moratorium, expressed no interest in extending it past the expiration date of Jan. 15.
The governor said she hears the message from New Yorkers who tell her “they don’t feel safe and they don’t like what they see on the streets.”
She called for varied efforts to tackle gun violence and to better trace illegal guns. Hochul also backed the Clean Slate Act, which would make New Yorkers convicted of felonies eligible to have their records sealed after seven years. And a “Jail to Jobs” program is intended to help former inmates re-enter society.
The governor steered clear of any mentions of bail reform, the state’s controversial laws approved under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that eliminated cash bail for many arrested on criminal charges, an issue that Republicans will amplify in this year’s gubernatorial and legislative races. We have said before that the bail laws have met the goal of reducing the criminalization of being poor, though judges should have more discretion in bail decisions when the laws are revisited.
The governor understands that some 319,000 residents left New York State between July 2020 and July 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. She called that “an alarm bell that cannot be ignored.” High taxes are a factor for many who leave, and Hochul proposed accelerating a $1.2 billion middle-class tax cut that began in 2018, along with $1 billion in property tax rebates.
Hochul also showed concern for the pandemic’s toll on merchants and manufacturers, proposing nearly $1 billion in tax credits and reduced interest loans for small businesses.
The meat of Hochul’s agenda will come in her budget proposal later this month. That will address the central question of how she intends to pay for her wish list. The gusher of federal money coming to New York must be used wisely, without committing the state to recurring future expenses that it can’t afford.
Whether breaking with Cuomo in style and substance or charting a middle path between the interests of downstate progressives and moderates from much of upstate, Hochul has made clear that she will go her own way as the state’s chief executive.
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