In Sweeping ‘State of the State,’ Hochul Sets Stage for Governor Campaign
From transit linking Brooklyn and Queens to incentives to keep health care workers on the job to green-building overhauls, speech highlights roads to recovery.
In her first state address since becoming governor, Kathy Hochul laid out a vision for New York centered on fixing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and building a more collaborative state government, as she seeks election for her first full term.
In an address from the State Capitol in Albany made to a mostly empty Assembly chamber, the Buffalo native stressed that her top priority is addressing the onslaught of new COVID-19 infections surging around the state.
She proposed ways to support a beleaguered health care system that’s been pummeled by the pandemic.
“This pandemic did not create all the problems we’re facing today. It simply forced us to hold up a mirror and see the cracks in our society that have been so easy to ignore before. This crisis has created an opportunity to redefine ourselves and we must embrace it,” Hochul said.
The speech touched on a spectrum of issues from health care and housing to curbing rising crime and overhauling ethics laws following the resignation of former scandal-scarred governor Andrew Cuomo in August — setting the tone for the legislative session that started Wednesday.
Here are the main takeaways:
Health Care Expansion
Hochul is seeking to alleviate burdens on the healthcare industry by growing the workforce by 20% over the next five years through training and education programs.
She’s also proposing a $10 billion, multi-year investment plan to boost wages for medical workers and upgrade infrastructure. Under Hochul’s proposal, which is subject to negotiations with the state Legislature, $2 billion would be geared toward wages, $2 billion for health care and mental health worker retention bonuses, with bonuses of up to $3,000 for full-timers who stay in their jobs for a year and prorated amounts for part-time employees.
An additional $500 million would be set aside for costs of living adjustments to raise wages for those in the field and another $2 billion to build out lab capacity and health care infrastructure.
The governor is also proposing free tuition for students studying in “high-demand health occupations” as long as they work in New York for a period of time following their credentialing, as well as stipends to make up for lost income while in school.
Cleaning Up Ethics
As THE CITY reported last month, Hochul plans to overhaul the state government’s ethics agency, replacing the Joint Commission on Public Ethics with a “truly independent and effective ethics enforcement entity.”
Created in Cuomo’s first term, the largely governor-controlled ethics commission has faced renewed scrutiny for giving the former governor the green light on a deal for a $5.1 million pandemic memoir that a state Assembly investigation in November concluded was written using state resources. JCOPE last month ordered Cuomo to return the proceeds.
Hochul’s proposing to replace the ethics agency with a new watchdog consisting of a rotating board of five members made up of 15 law school deans or their designees. The measure would also require that the new ethics agency be subject to public records and open meetings laws — a departure from the current setup where commissioners often exclude the public from discussions.
The governor is also floating term limits for statewide elected officials to two consecutive four-year terms in office, a measure that would require a constitutional amendment with voter approval, as well as banning outside income.
Targeting Illegal Guns
Hochul pledged triple staffing at New York State Intelligence Center, a multi-agency law enforcement coalition, with analysts to more quickly investigate gun crimes throughout the state. She also proposed teaming up with local police departments around the region to trace guns across state lines.
There’ll also be a pilot program to improve employment opportunities after an offense and the state will reinstate tuition assistance available for incarcerated individuals — spending that has been banned for roughly three decades.
“We know that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are far less likely to reoffend and 13 times more likely to obtain employment after returning home,” Hochul said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Notably missing from her address were any plans to change New York’s 2019 bail reform laws, which prevent judges from assigning cash bail for most nonviolent crimes or detaining defendants they consider dangerous pre-trial.
Mayor Eric Adams, members of law enforcement and Republican lawmakers have blamed the reforms for recent rises in crime. Hochul indicated in November that she’s willing to work with Adams and the state Legislature to tweak the law.
Rethinking Landlord Tax Break
The governor is floating a plan to eliminate the controversial 421-a program that offers real estate developers tax breaks in exchange for setting aside a portion of their buildings for affordable housing.
Set to expire in June, the program would be replaced by “a different kind of abatement program that can continue to incentivize rental housing construction across New York City while creating permanent and deeper affordability and spending taxpayer money more efficiently,” according to the governor’s policy book.
With the state’s pandemic-spurred eviction moratorium slated to expire next week, Hochul wants to replicate the city’s 2017 Right to Counsel program that provides free legal services for low-income tenants facing eviction.
Not included in her policy priorities is a tenant advocate-favored “Good Cause” proposal that would guarantee tenants lease renewals in most circumstances and cap rent hikes.
To curb homelessness in the five boroughs, the governor wants to establish “teams of mental health professionals and social workers” who will partner with the city to “reach homeless individuals and move them to shelters and housing,” Hochul said.
Leaner and Greener
Under state law enacted in 2019, New York must become emissions-free by 2040.
Hochul proposed investing $500 million in offshore wind port and supply chain infrastructure to create 2,000 jobs and advance renewable generation — although it’s unclear where the money would come from.
Hochul also proposed electrifying buildings, a top source of greenhouse gas emissions. Following legislation recently passed by the New York City Council, Hochul promised to propose a measure to require new structures to be zero emissions by 2027 (later than the city’s timeline and the 2024 timeline in existing legislation introduced at the state level).
She also proposed making 2 million homes electric or “electrification-ready” by 2030, including at least 800,000 low- or moderate-income residences — to be funded by $250 million from the state plus additional federal money.
“Too much time has already been lost in the fight against climate change,” Hochul said.
Additionally, Hochul committed to electrifying school buses by 2035; making The Bronx’s Hunts Point Food Distribution Center into a “clean distribution hub” by upgrading facilities and transitioning vehicles off diesel; and retrofitting a million schools with green roofs, solar and other efficiency upgrades.
She directed the state to create a plan to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and to figure out how to retire or redevelop fossil fuel facilities such as highly polluting peaker plants by 2030.
Hochul touted the $4 billion Environmental Bond Act she proposed in September as a way to pay for climate investments, but did not mention two key mechanisms some environmental advocates have been pushing: imposing fees on carbon emissions and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.
Linking Brooklyn and Queens
Hochul pledged to jumpstart plans to add a new transit service connecting Brooklyn and Queens by repurposing an existing 14-mile freight train corridor running between the two boroughs.
The “Interborough Express” project — first proposed as the “Triboro Line” more than a quarter century ago by the Regional Plan Association — could add subway, light rail or bus rapid transit service along the route. Hochul ordered the MTA to start an environmental review to determine the best option for the stretch.
In January 2020, the MTA began the initial phase of a feasibility study of evaluating a section of the route for subway service. The entire stretch, according to Hochul, would connect with up to 17 subway lines and the LIRR, making possible trips between Brooklyn and Queens that are currently slow or infeasible by mass transit.
Hochul committed to working with New York City to possibly cover up parts of the Cross-Bronx Expressway in an effort to increase open space and decrease pollution. That area of The Bronx sees high rates of asthma, prompting commitments from Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Richie Torres to use the proposed Cross-Bronx cap to address poor air quality.