Governor Hochul has been sworn in to her first full term as governor and state lawmakers return this week to Albany. While the swearing in of Governor Hochul marks the first time a woman has been elected as the state’s chief executive, in many ways January 2023 is not markedly different than 2022.
A year ago Hochul was governor and the Democrats had supermajorities in both houses. The Attorney General was, and is, Letitia James, and Tom DiNapoli is the state Comptroller – a position that he has held for 15 years. The ongoing COVID pandemic is expected to be, well, ongoing.
Yet, there will be differences. Last year, Democrats were rallying around Hochul after she became governor upon the resignation of Andrew Cuomo in August 2021. Governor Hochul hit the ground running for her election. Now she’s been elected to a full four-year term. Democrats, being Democrats, are already showing signs of rebellion within their ranks. Governor Hochul’s nominee for Chief Judge of the state’s highest court has run into opposition from the progressive wing of the Party and there is significant – and growing – opposition among state Senate Democrats, the people who will have to ultimately vote on the nomination.
The state’s COVID pandemic emergency powers that gave the governor enormous authority over state lawmaking expired this past Fall when the governor said she believed that coronavirus cases were under control. While it’s arguable that COVID is under control, the return of the governor’s powers to pre-pandemic status is a change.
As things settle down to a new “normal” New Yorkers can look ahead to a new legislative session that will take on issues large and small. If history is any guide, there will be something like 17,000 bills introduced during the new two-year legislative session. Of those, upwards of 1,000 will be approved by lawmakers in each of the two years. Although Governor Hochul has been more aggressive in her use of her veto pen as she’s settled in as governor, the overwhelming majority of these bills will become law.
As the session gears up, what can New Yorkers expect to be the biggest debates? Of course, no one can predict all that will happen – for example, who could have predicted the pandemic in 2020 and then the resignation of Governor Cuomo in 2021? There are, however, key issues that are likely to dominate 2023.
First, the budget. In every session, the budget dominates. Last year the state appropriated over $220 billion for New York programs. The real budget debate is usually conducted in secret with only a perfunctory public process, with the governor holding the upper hand and driving the debate. As a result, the governor’s signature initiatives are contained in her budget plan, which is due to be presented by February 1st.
In 2023, the first year of a four-year term, the governor will want to tackle the toughest fiscal challenges, not let them fester until she (or legislators) faces the voters. This session creates a dilemma: The state’s finances are likely in the best shape this year, with the situation deteriorating in the years ahead – as the pandemic financial aid from the federal government dries up. Look for the governor to propose a tight budget. Legislators will feel pressure from local governments and constituent groups to spend. How lawmakers react to the governor’s proposal will drive not only the budget process, but the relationship between the executive and legislative branches as well.
As mentioned, there is a growing rebellion from the left wing of the Democratic Party to the governor’s pick to head the state highest court – the Court of Appeals. That fight will be first out of the gate and likely be viewed as a test of the governor’s power as well as her ability to have a collegial relationship with the Democratic lawmakers that control both legislative chambers.
The governor has cited the issue of housing and the homeless as a top priority. There can be no doubt that lack of affordable housing makes worse the number of homeless residents and also contributes to the high cost of living in New York. Local officials including the influential New York City mayor have also said affordable housing is a priority. However, there’s no consensus plan despite widespread agreement on the need to address the problem.
Building affordable housing is a difficult issue: there can be considerable local opposition, New York (particularly in New York City) has a complicated system of housing regulations. Real estate developers are also looking for state benefits in order to make it more profitable to build. Expect a fight over whether to renew or replace tax incentives that encourage private developers to build market rate projects as well as affordable housing. A tax abatement program was allowed to expire in June of 2022. The governor has pledged to bring back real estate incentives and we’ll likely see that as part of her budget.
Dealing with the climate catastrophe is another top item. In December, the state’s Climate Action Council released a roadmap plan for how the state can meet its ambitious, science-based climate goals. Many of the recommendations can be implemented through regulations, but others will require legislation. The governor will need to provide new revenues to help make the state more resilient as well as fund the move to a greener energy system.
The governor also should tackle the problems of the state’s higher education system, much of which is teetering on the financial brink.
There will be more difficult issues that do not rely on the budget but may get addressed in that debate. Issues such as combating crime – an issue on which the governor was relentlessly attacked by her Republican opponent in the recent election. Measures to improve the state’s democracy – like implementing the new voluntary system of public financing and enforcement – will also impact on Albany’s debates.
These are just some of the obvious, big-ticket issues that will be in play. The 2023 session is set to begin and with it are the hopes that New Yorkers will see a productive and responsive session.