ALBANY — In her first State of the State speech, Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed a dramatic expansion of New York’s health care workforce, tax breaks for small business, a new ethics agency and a new era of cooperation between her office and other elected officials.
Hochul, New York’s first female governor, put the pandemic at the top of her agenda by saying she would invest $10 billion in an effort to grow the health care workforce by 20% over the next five years. The money would be spread out for pay raises, bonuses and cost-of-living increases, loan forgiveness for doctors who agree to work in underserved areas and $2 billion dedicated to improving physical infrastructure and lab capacity.
She also proposed a package of tax breaks for small businesses and a tax rebate program for lower- and middle-class homeowners and authority for restaurants to resume selling “alcohol to go” as they did earlier in the pandemic.
The 63-year-old Buffalo Democrat also sought to distance herself from her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, not only in her agenda but also in delivery.
Hochul wrapped up her a speech in a crisp 34 minutes, roughly half the length of a typical Cuomo address. It wasn’t held in a theater or ballroom, but the nearly-empty State Assembly where the audience was severely limited because of the spike in COVID-19 cases. And it didn’t come with the typical Cuomo adornments: no slide shows, no insider jokes, no cartoon images of other political leaders.
Along those lines, Hochul promised legislators and local officials she’d operate in a different way than Cuomo, who ruled in a top-down way for nearly 11 years as governor before resigning in August amid various investigations.
“The days of governors disregarding the rightful role of the legislature are over. The days of the governor of New York and mayor of New York City wasting time on petty rivalries are over,” Hochul said. “In the four months since I took office, my administration has demonstrated that there is a different, better way to get things done. Our government will be defined by its shared success.”
The speech was Hochul’s first chance to outline a legislative agenda. It also gives her a chance to rack up policy and budgetary victories early in an election year when challengers have lined up against her. She opened her remarks by acknowledging her historical status but saying it wouldn’t be the focus of her agenda.
“As governor of New York, I am well aware of the significance of this moment: the first time a woman has presented the State of the State,” Hochul said. “But I am not here simply to make history. I am here to make a difference.”
With the state flush with federal pandemic aid, the governor proposed a long wish list of investment and expansion goals. As is custom in these speeches, there were few specifics on how these will be achieved or paid for. That will come later in January when Hochul proposes a state budget.
For now, rebuilding a decimated and weary health care workforce was atop her agenda.
“To confront this pandemic and prepare for the future, we will support the men and women who have been on the front lines from the very beginning and who will help keep New Yorkers healthy long after this crisis is over,” Hochul said. “We must stop the current hemorrhaging of health care workers, and we are going to do it not just by saying we owe them a debt of gratitude, but actually paying them the debt we owe.”
Some of her other proposals included:
- Limiting governors to two consecutive four-year terms. This is in contrast to Cuomo, who won three terms and planned on running for a fourth. Thirty-six other states have some form of term limits for governors.
- Providing $100 million in tax relief for small businesses, creating a new property tax rebate for lower- and middle-income households and accelerating a previously enacted middle-class tax cut.
- Boosting investment in offshore wind by $500 million and electric vehicle infrastructure and deployment by $1 billion; electrifying school buses and state vehicle fleet by 2035.
- Scrapping the controversial state ethics commission, which was seen as controlled by Cuomo. The new board would consist of law school deans rather than political appointees.
- Removing or altering highways that divided communities, such as studying the feasibility of “decking” sections of the Cross Bronx Expressway to connect now-severed neighborhoods. Also, eliminating “rail deserts” by, in one example, converting an old freight rail line to a new “Interborough Expressway” connecting Queens and Brooklyn.
- Reinstating “alcohol to go,” a short-term pandemic-inspired policy that allowed bars and restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for takeout. Also for restaurants, a tax credit for COVID-related purchases such as outdoor heating and seating.
On criminal justice, Hochul proposed launching a “jail to jobs” program to help inmates gain employment upon release. And she said she supports the “Clean Slate Act,” which would open the door to sealing records on misdemeanors and certain felonies after specific time periods.
She also proposed tripling funds for tracing illegal guns, increasing spending to hire prosecutors and police, and doubling the number of special State Police units that partner with local police to tackle “community-specific crime problems.”
But Hochul didn’t mention the most high-profile criminal justice issue: bail laws.
Cuomo and the State Legislature changed the laws to eliminate bail on most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes. Republicans, who have called for rollbacks, used the issue effectively in 2021 elections, especially in winning both district attorney offices on Long Island.
Republicans and Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi — who wants to challenge Hochul in a Democratic gubernatorial primary — criticized the omission. Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), whose support for bail reform became a key issue in his failed campaign for Nassau County district attorney, said he was disappointed.
“I don’t think there’s any way to run away from the issue this year,” Kaminsky said.
But Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said the Democratic-led legislature had no plans to visit any bail-law rollbacks at this time, saying they would not respond to “hysteria.”
Hochul also omitted any proposal to join other states that automatically mail election ballots to all registered voters, an idea she floated in December. Instead, she said she’d revive an effort to allow all voters an absentee ballot upon request, without having to claim they can’t vote in person because of illness or work.
Voters in November defeated such a proposal in a statewide referendum.