Despite promises of greater transparency from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office, the recently concluded budget process was conducted in notable secrecy, even by Albany standards.
“This has been among the most secretive budgets I’ve ever seen, where they did the barest minimum to let the public know what’s going on,” Blair Horner, executive director of the government watchdog nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group, told City & State.
The budget was the culmination of months of, admittedly smaller, transparency issues. Hochul benefitted from a honeymoon period after she became the state’s first female governor in late August. But almost from Day One, she deflected questions from reporters under the guise of collaboration with lawmakers.
Almost any time a reporter asked her about a high-profile bill that had yet to pass in the Legislature or a controversial issue like bail, Hochul would generally give some version of the same response: She’ll review it if the Legislature approves it, or she’s open to working with the Legislature on (insert topic here). Asked about the Climate and Community Investment Act and the prospect of implementing a gas tax last year, Hochul avoided a direct answer and said she would support “anything that's going to get us to a better place.” The bill hasn’t passed, and Hochul’s position on implementing the corporate gas tax, a popular idea among progressives that has faced strong resistance from business groups, remains unknown.
In Albany – and for anyone who has spent more than five minutes with a politician – this behavior is par for the course to a degree. One could argue Hochul simply acted like a savvy political operator by carefully managing her public image as she privately made decisions about where she stood on big issues. “I expected her to take it slowly, to push back when need be right and to stand firm,” political consultant Camille Rivera, who publicly spoke out against former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s governing style last year and has years of experience dealing with Albany politics, told City & State. She added that she gave the governor “an immense amount of grace” in those first few months as the state’s first woman in the governor’s mansion.
And certainly, Hochul has made strides toward creating a more open government compared to some of her predecessors. She has posted her recusals online and released a conflicts of interest policy with regards to her husband’s work with the company Delaware North, which does business with the state. Hochul has also touted the clearance of a backlog of Freedom of Information Law requests as part of her administration’s ongoing efforts to streamline the process of getting those requests fulfilled – the state has traditionally had infamously long wait times. The good government group Reinvent Albany – whose executive director has been open about his criticism of the secretive budget process – released a report last month evaluating the transparency plans that Hochul required state agencies to submit, praising her for the step while offering recommendations to further strengthen government transparency. “Sometimes the hardest work is implementation of all these initiatives,” Rachael Fauss, senior policy analyst with Reinvent Albany, told City & State of the continual need for follow through from the governor on her bold promises and first steps.
But dodging questions from the press is not the only criticism Hochul has faced. She received blowback over delays in releasing detailed public schedules, the first batch of which came after reporters had filed Freedom of Information Law requests already. When Hochul’s administration made those schedules public, they included a large number of “private events” as the governor broke fundraising records. Her administration offered no additional insight about those political events, who attended them or even their nature. Hochul also made questionable use of state travel resources that necessitated her campaign reimbursing taxpayer dollars when her government and political work mixed. It offered more than enough reason for one to least raise an eyebrow given her Day One promise about greater transparency. “Gov. Hochul is committed to transparency, accountability and the highest ethical standards,” spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said in a statement. “Since taking office, Gov. Hochul has taken numerous actions to change the culture in Albany and restore trust in government, and we continue to take steps to deliver the government New Yorkers deserve – including with a bold, fiscally responsible $220 billion budget." She also reaffirmed that Hochul would release detailed schedules on a quarterly basis.
Then came the budget, and Hochul seemed to shed any veneer of transparency. “I’m not negotiating in the press” became a common refrain from the governor when asked about any issue not explicitly included in her executive budget released in January. Though she claimed the position was meant to allow greater collaboration with lawmakers, it effectively translated to a lockbox on where she stood on any number of contentious issues. “Collegiality does not necessarily mean transparency,” Fauss said. Hochul’s eventual op-ed on bail reform came only after weeks of questions about where she stood, as well as after her administration’s public safety plan had already been leaked in the press.
Horner, of the good government watchdog group, said he was judging the budget process as a whole, using measures like how many bills required messages of necessity in order to pass and the number of nonpublic conference meetings with lawmakers as benchmarks. On the governor’s side, she notably went 10 days without speaking to capitol reporters even as the budget was late, the second longest amount of time a New York governor has gone without addressing a late budget since the 1920s. Although Horner said that Hochul’s secretiveness doesn’t necessarily rise to a level beyond any of her predecessors, he added, “In terms of openness, this ain’t it.”
The most prominent example came in the form of Hochul’s approach to bail reform. As crime spiked in New York City, lawmakers began to feel the pressure to further roll back the 2019 changes made to the state’s bail laws. Despite pressure from New York City Mayor Eric Adams, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie remained adamant and clear: Their chambers had no interest in changes to bail reform. Hochul, on the other hand, avoided taking a definitive stance either way, despite repeated questions from the press. Her precious few comments on the matter beyond platitudes about assessing available data and working with lawmakers seemed to indicate that she would not support bail rollbacks when she said she would not “cave to pressure” from Adams in January.
After her 10-point public safety plan leaked to the press before legislative leaders could even review it – something she denied her administration had any part in – Hochul still wouldn’t answer questions on the topic of bail reform. “New Yorkers are most interested in results,” Hochul said in March when asked about her lack of transparency around bail. “That's why we're working with my team and working with the legislators to craft a position ... I will strike the right balance in what we're doing here.” Soon after, Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin was caught on camera fleeing into an elevator rather than responding to reporter questions on bail reform.
The billion-dollar deal to build the Buffalo Bills a new stadium did little to improve Hochul’s image on transparency. She announced the deal shortly before the budget deadline without first giving legislative leaders prior warning, throwing another wrench in the already tense negotiations. Editorial boards almost universally panned the deal – with the exception being The Buffalo News – in part for the secrecy around the deal and the lack of scrutiny the timing of the announcement afforded. “I am pretty sure that she has utilized the back room and secrecy as a way to get things done,” Rivera said, taking particular umbrage at the amount of time the governor went without talking to reporters. “And that is not how we should govern, and it's a direct opposite of what she was pushing forward.” Hochul has defended both the deal and how she announced it, saying the timing lined up with a meeting among NFL officials and the stadium project would lead to economic development opportunities.
In some ways, the system had set Hochul up for failure on transparency from the state. “Every governor comes in saying they're going to be an open government,” Horner said. “And they all fail – and it’s not entirely their fault.” Negotiating sensitive matters with other state officials generally lends itself to secrecy so as to maintain leverage. “That being said, yes, the reality has not come close to the promise,” Horner said of Hochul’s early pledge for a more open government.
One Albany strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the governor, suggested a more mundane reason for some of the biggest apparent budget blunders from Hochul. “It just seemed a little sloppy,” the strategist said. “So my gut tells me the level of secretiveness … that has enveloped the budget process and her is … more a function of, this is their first go around here and they don’t really know what they’re doing.” Hochul addressed that very critique after announcing a tentative budget deal, telling reporters, “We're not inexperienced. We know we know how to get things done.”
However, the Albany strategist noted the innately secretive nature of maintaining power and influence in Albany that makes Hochul’s promises about a more transparent government hard to make good on. “Structurally, this just shows you that no matter who was in that chair, there is a level of behind-closed-door deal making that's always going to happen,” the strategist said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the governor's office.
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