Each governor annually issues a “State of the State.” This is required by the state Constitution, “The governor shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session the condition of the state, and recommend such matters to it as he or she shall judge expedient.” From that one sentence, New York’s State of the State addresses have evolved into a long speech – usually around one hour – in which governors use the bully pulpit to largely congratulate themselves and lawmakers on the great achievements that been made.
More like the Presidential “State of the Union” address, modern era governors use the opportunity to capture the spotlight, promote their own agenda and to dominate media coverage, effectively to try to set the agenda for the upcoming session.
Expect no less from the current Governor Kathy Hochul.
For decades, the governor’s State of the State was delivered in the ornate state Assembly chambers. That house seats the chamber’s 150 members, as compared to the smaller state Senate chamber, and so can hold more people in the audience. That traditional practice has continued under Governor Hochul, who moved the address back to the Assembly chamber after a decade-long hiatus in which former Governor Cuomo used the more functional state Convention Center for his addresses, breaking with the tradition.
State of the State addresses are usually long on rhetoric and short on substance. Details are left to the budget presentation released later in the month.
There can be no doubt that the governor wants to set the policy table with her own initiatives. It is expected that she will urge action to expand affordable housing and to propose changes to the state’s public safety laws. It is unlikely that she will dwell on the serious challenges facing the state.
The policy “elephant in the room” is the precarious nature of the state’s finances. Going into the pandemic, New York’s finances were eroding, and eroding rapidly. The state was sliding toward a crisis when the pandemic hit. Had financial assistance not come from the federal government, New York would have been facing a very serious financial shortfall.
The unprecedented federal assistance not only helped the state to weather the ongoing COVID pandemic, but to also shore up its finances. That assistance is drying up and budget shortfalls loom.
Add to that the gigantic – and growing – deficits of the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), municipal governments, and colleges, and the state of the state looks grim. Add to those problems the significant financial costs to address damages caused by rising sea levels and fiercer storms caused by global warming and the state financial outlook is dire.
Where will the money come from?
Historically, the governor and lawmakers cut budget deals that “kick the can” down the road on the more difficult problems, add revenues from more or less regressive taxes and fees, and then hope for the best. But the cratering finances of the MTA and the mushrooming costs resulting from the climate crisis will not allow fiscal sleight-of-hand to succeed.
A true report on the “condition of the state” could not possibly ignore the gathering financial storms. But to recognize them would be delivering bad news, an option usually to be avoided in State of the State addresses.
Yet, the governor can’t look away from it. The incredible damage and deaths from the recent snowstorm in Buffalo, the drowning deaths of New York City residents in basement apartments from Hurricane Ida, the flooding of subways tunnels, are all just an indication of worse events to come.
Saving lives and protecting infrastructure hinge on decisions made today, not sometime in the worsening future. Climate change is not an environmental problem alone, it is a societal one, a threat that impacts the lives and the economic future of everyone.
It’s clear that a massive investment to “weatherize” the state’s infrastructure is necessary and will in fact happen, sooner or in a more expensive later. But who should pay?
Let’s hope that Governor Hochul’s State of the State address tackles this critical issue. A massive jobs program to protect and revitalize the state is critical to saving lives and treasure. And making sure that the oil companies – those most responsible for the threats – are the ones picking up the tab.
New Yorkers will soon see whether this governor uses the bully pulpit to take on the incredible challenge. Or will Albany kick the can?