New York Gov. Kathy Hochul delivered her first State of the State speech Wednesday to a strictly limited audience with the pall of the pandemic casting a shadow over the proceedings.
But Hochul remained upbeat, pledging to lead New York out of the pandemic as she spoke to a subdued audience of 50 or so lawmakers, aides and pool reporters in the cavernous Assembly chamber.
The governor, who has been dealing in recent days with a record-breaking spike in positivity rates for the virus and a fraying society, said she will be laser-focused on keeping kids in school, businesses open and keeping New Yorkers’ lives as normal as possible.
“This is not a moment of despair, but a moment of great possibility,” Hochul said. “If we make the right choices, right now, it will end.”
Hochul outlined an ambitious array of programs that she said will help bring the state and its pandemic-ravaged economy back. Among them is a $10 billion multiyear plan to support health care workers, including $4 billion dollars in wage increases and bonuses.
She also proposed a $1 billion property tax rebate, the acceleration of a phased-in middle class tax cut, and tax breaks for small businesses.
The state is flush with cash due to higher-than-projected sales tax and other revenues and federal aid packages approved over the past two years. Those funds will allow the state to complete numerous infrastructure projects, including the third track project on the Long Island Railroad.
Hochul also pledged to “reverse the damage” of urban expressways that have divided neighborhoods for decades, including Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway and Rochester’s Inner Loop.
Ortt said he is pleased, though, that the governor is backing term limits, and he said he hopes the Democrats in the Legislature will follow through.
She also vowed to get back the 300,000 New Yorkers who have moved out of the state during the pandemic. That’s the steepest decline in population of any state in the nation, which she called an “alarm bell that cannot be ignored.”
Hochul is the first woman to give a State of the State address in New York. She replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who resigned in disgrace after numerous scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment and overseeing a toxic, bullying workplace.
Hochul did not mention her predecessor by name, but she pledged a new era where lawmakers share success, find common ground and fight not for political turf, but for the interests of the people of the state.
“The days of the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City wasting time on petty rivalries are over,” Hochul declared.
Cuomo frequently picked fights with former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The governor promised to address the state’s numerous ethics controversies and said she will replace the politically weighted Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, with a rotating board of law school deans. She also outlined a previously announced proposal to limit statewide elected officials to just two four-year terms. Her predecessor, Cuomo, had intended to run for a fourth term before he left office in August.
“Those of us in power cannot continue to cling to it,” she said.
Hochul addressed the state’s rising crime rate and what she said is the “very real uptick in gun violence,” and she pledged to double down on implementing anti-gun violence programs like tracing and better monitoring of social media.
In an accompanying 200-page book outlining her priorities, the governor backed what’s known as clean slate legislation, a measure favored by progressives in her party that would seal conviction records once a person has served their time for the crime they committed. She made no mention of any changes to the state’s bail reform laws, which critics say have contributed to higher crime rates.
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, like Hochul, is a Democrat. She said she looks forward to a collaborative relationship with the governor. Stewart-Cousins said data on the law, which ended most forms of cash bail, is just now being collected, and she’d rather wait before making changes.
“We want criminals to be punished,” Stewart-Cousins said. “But I do not want our system of justice to be dependent on whether or not you can buy yourself out.”
Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, say preliminary data shows there were 3,500 additional crimes committed because some of those released without bail broke the law again. Senate GOP Leader Robert Ortt said that’s too high a price to pay to be “more woke.”
He said he disagrees with opponents who he said view it as “you’ve got to break few eggs if you’re going to make an omelet.”
“I don’t see it that way,” Ortt said.
The influence of the pandemic was also felt outside the Capitol, where several hundred people opposed to vaccinations rallied, saying COVID-related mandates are impinging on their freedoms.
Entry into the Capitol was limited to vaccinated individuals, or those who could produce a negative coronavirus test, so most of the protesters were not allowed in. Access to the upper floors of the building, where Hochul gave her speech, were also restricted to those who worked there.
Unlike in previous years, the governor’s address was not punctuated by applause — or even the rare heckler. There was one proposal, though, that led to some low chuckles of appreciation.
Hochul — announcing aid for the state’s battered restaurant industry, including tax credits for outdoor heaters and other pandemic-related purchases — said she’ll push to make permanent a temporary law from earlier in the pandemic that allowed patrons to order alcohol to go.
“Cheers, New York,” Hochul said.