New York State

How chapter amendments are helping Gov. Kathy Hochul keep legislators happy

Requesting changes to legislation helps any governor avoid vetoes that might antagonize the state Legislature.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and her predecessor have teamed up this year to issue a historically high number of approval messages to legislation they signed into law.

Gov. Kathy Hochul and her predecessor have teamed up this year to issue a historically high number of approval messages to legislation they signed into law. Don Pollard/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul has her reasons to keep state lawmakers happy. She has talked a lot in recent months about how good relations with the Legislature are part of a broader effort to change the political culture in Albany. Avoiding unnecessary vetoes is just one of many ways she can make good on that while she gets ready for a likely tumultuous 2022 budget process and gubernatorial campaign.

One of the tools that a governor has to avoid antagonizing legislators with vetoes is by issuing something called approval messages – which outline how legislators have agreed to pass additional legislation to resolve disagreements about a bill as written. The number of these agreed changes – 35 as of publication time – is higher at this point in 2021 compared to past years, according to legislative records. One reason for this appears to be the respective reasons Hochul and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo have had to placate legislators considering all the political developments in recent months, political insiders say.

“In the closing weeks of (the Cuomo) administration it had become clear that alienating the Legislature was a bad idea, not necessarily because they would override his vetoes but because they controlled his fate prior to his resignation,” Democratic political consultant Evan Stavisky said in a text. “Since taking office, Gov. Hochul has taken a new approach with the Legislature: treating them as partners, as opposed to enemies … so both Gov. Hochul has and former Gov. Cuomo had their own reasons to try to resolve policy disagreements through chapter amendments and avoid needless vetoes this year.”

Hochul and Cuomo have roughly split the 35 approval messages issued thus far this year. That is faster than in any other year in recent decades, according to records in the state Legislative Retrieval System. Expected changes to new laws include clarifying the people affected by a ban, signed into law by Hochul in October, on the possession of unserialized or unfinished parts of firearms called receivers, which could be used to assemble so-called ghost guns. Cuomo issued an approval message in August outlining an agreement with lawmakers freeing the state Housing Trust Fund Corp. from the “unduly burdensome” requirement of locating commercial properties to convert to housing under the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Program. The full list of approval messages issued this year also includes expected changes to bills affecting topics as varied as building codes, eviction protections and withheld wages for construction workers.

Governors do not always explicitly threaten a veto unless they get such changes, but veteran lawmakers say there is always the risk of that happening if they do not agree on sometimes bittersweet changes. “Sometimes you got to swallow it,” state Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island said in an interview, recalling a 2015 agreement to exempt the cash-strapped New York City Housing Authority from a bill targeting mold mediation. “Forget about lead paint; they already had issues with mold before (Superstorm) Sandy – but it was one of those things.” Sometimes though the governor might hold out to tighten a provision in a bill, such as a recent approval message on legislation outlining how mortgage providers will have 30 days, rather than 60, to give borrowers info on how they should contact them for loan modifications. That was fine by bill sponsor state Sen. James Sanders Jr. of Queens. “If she wants to make it sharper, we agree,” he said in an interview.

Every now and then, legislators might hold out if they suspect a governor is bluffing about vetoing bills, especially if they have strong support among legislators, advocacy groups or the public. “You don’t want to veto bills that you know are protective of vulnerable class of people or animals,” Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan said in an interview. “Not a good look.” Hochul still has to decide what to do with hundreds of outstanding bills passed by the Legislature this year, and her list of approval messages detailing future chapter amendments is likely to grow significantly in December, a traditionally busy time for governors deciding what to do with all those bills legislators passed. “It’s a game of chicken until the very end,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan said about getting bills signed by a governor with minimal changes.Cuomo and Hochul issued 33 approval messages by Nov. 8 out of nearly 600 bills signed into law. The former governor did not reach that many messages until Dec. 6 in any of the full years he served as governor, with less than 40 approval messages in six out of his 10 full years in office. Former Govs. David Paterson and Eliot Spitzer never issued more than 53 in a year in their short terms in office. Their predecessor, George Pataki, the only Republican to hold statewide office in the past two decades, issued 13 approval messages in his last five years in office combined – though he did exceed 100 in his first three years in office in the mid-1990s. Governors in recent years have typically issued about 100-400 vetoes per year. The 56 issued by Cuomo and Hochul so far in 2021 (as of publication time) is low by comparison, though it will likely grow in the coming weeks. A spokesperson for Hochul did not respond to a request for comment on the governor’s strategy regarding chapter amendments.

The final number of approval messages issued by Hochul this year will only matter so much, but potential changes could affect a good chunk of the hundreds of bills awaiting executive action. Many of the agreed changes will be small in scope, but more than a few political watchers are keeping track to see how Hochul might try to avoid conflict with legislators – especially considering all her stated efforts to work with, and not against, state legislators fearful that a governor might thwart months, or even years, of legislative effort. So accepting legislative tweaks is often a price lawmakers will pay to get their bills past the finish line – especially if the expected chapter amendments are not that dramatic in scope. “It closed this really important loophole,” state Sen. Anna Kaplan of Nassau County said of the bill she sponsored to limit access to firearm receivers. “We as legislators have to work with everybody to get good legislation.”