Hochul projects amity – even as chief judge fight clouds start of session

The governor’s State of the State address in a packed Assembly chamber emphasized unity and collaboration – while protesters demonstrated behind security barriers.

Hochul delivered her first State of the State address as elected governor.

Hochul delivered her first State of the State address as elected governor. Don Pollard/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul

As Gov. Kathy Hochul addressed members of the state Legislature to lay out her agenda for the year, she spoke warmly about being able to give her speech to a packed chamber. “It was extraordinary how far we’ve come in that one year since that time when I literally had to address empty seats,” Hochul said, referring to her State of the State in 2022 when COVID-19 restrictions barred the majority of people from attending her address in person. But at the same time she made those remarks, hundreds of citizens who came to Albany to protest on one of the biggest days of the legislative year found themselves barred from even entering the Capitol. And it wasn’t the pandemic that resulted in the decision to close down the building. 

After acknowledging her happiness seeing the crowd, Hochul highlighted the partnership between herself and the assembled lawmakers. “When we are united, there’s no stopping us,” Hochul said, before touting a number of accomplishments achieved last year, from gun safety laws to abortion access. “I thank the Legislature for being partners as we addressed those challenges in 2022,” Hochul said to applause from the gathered lawmakers. Despite her cozy comments, her relationship to many state Senate lawmakers is off to a rocky start this session as she continues to stand by her nominee for the state’s chief judge, Hector LaSalle. More than a dozen state senators have vowed not to support LaSalle, who would be the state’s first Latino Court of Appeals chief judge, citing a judicial record they deem too conservative. Much like last year, Hochul strived to strike a congenial tone in her State of the State, touting partnership and working in tandem with lawmakers in direct contrast with her predecessor. But after winning her first election for governor, Hochul has made it clear through her actions, if not her words, that she’s ready to flex her authority in order to achieve her agenda.

That agenda is arguably less sweeping than last year’s, when she would face her first full term as governor with a surplus of federal cash and needed to differentiate herself from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. That’s not to say that Hochul does not have some bold goals this time around. She proposed putting the screws to local governments in order to get them to build more housing to meet her goal of 800,000 new units in 10 years with a threat that the state would override local zoning laws if municipalities don’t hit a required number of new developments. After caving to pressure from suburbs last year to abandon a proposal to legalize accessory dwelling units, Hochul’s decision to go toe-to-toe with local leaders is representative of her stronger position with a full term ahead of her.

But Hochul won that term in no small part thanks to organizing by progressive groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party – both of whom put out statements blasting her speech – and her State of the State offers little indication that she’ll return the favor by offering support for their priorities. As housing advocates staged their rally outside security checkpoints, Hochul declined to mention any part of their agenda, including “good cause” eviction and a rental voucher program, as part of her grand housing plan. “Tenants and homeless New Yorkers have the solutions and we’ve brought our demands to Governor Hochul’s doorstep,” the Housing Justice for All coalition said in a statement. “It’s time for the Governor to listen to us instead of shutting us out and doing the bidding of rich real estate donors yet again.”

Replacing the now-expired 421-a tax break for developers to build affordable housing is also crucial to Hochul’s housing plan. She said in her speech she plans to work collaboratively with lawmakers to figure out what that replacement will look like, which represents a break from last year when she proposed a replacement on her own, but this still sets up her clash with lawmakers who considered the tax break a nonstarter during budget negotiations last year. At the time, some lawmakers suggested that they may support replacement to 421-a so long as it paired with tenant protections – namely “good cause” eviction – but the absence of such proposals in Hochul’s State of the State is a strong indicator that her position on those ideas hasn’t changed much in the past year. “I do agree that there needs to be some changes to our zoning, but the meat and juice of it is that people are just really, really struggling with affordability of housing,” socialist Assembly Member Phara Souffrant Forrest told City & State.

Perhaps the biggest fight Hochul has set up with lawmakers this year is once again making changes to the state’s bail laws. She took a more direct approach than last year, when she surprised legislative leaders and rank-and-file members alike with a 10-point criminal justice plan shortly before the budget was due that included rolling back the 2019 bail reform laws. In her State of the State this year, Hochul proposed removing the “least restrictive” standard for setting pretrial conditions for the most serious crimes that are already bail eligible, giving judges more discretion to set bail or detain someone pretrial. “I have great worries about her wanting to relitigate bail yet again, four years in a row,” Democratic Assembly Member Robert Carroll told City & State. “I don’t think they are at all connected to any rises in crime” – a reality the governor also acknowledged, saying bail reform was “not a primary driver” of a crime increase. State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris simply said that Hochul’s plan to revisit bail once again is “not good” in a text. When asked about the governor’s plan to address bail, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie – a staunch supporter of the law who has resisted making changes in the past – told reporters simply, “I haven’t looked at the proposal,” but that he’s “happy to hear that she wants to focus on the drivers of crime.”

But that’s not to say that Hochul has exhausted good will with lawmakers or even those ideologically to the left. Her plan to index the state’s minimum wage to inflation was met with applause in the Assembly chamber, and generally was well-received by Democratic lawmakers who approve of automatically increasing pay to rise with the cost of living. Hochul also received praise for her attention on both mental health and access to health care, even if some lawmakers disagreed with her specifics. Democratic State Sen. Gustavo Rivera even said that while he would like to raise taxes on the wealthy as a source of revenue for various initiatives, including those proposed by the governor, he appreciated her upfront declaration that she has no intention to raise income taxes. “She’s not somebody who lies for a living, so I can believe her when she says she’s not going to raise income taxes, she’s not going to raise income taxes,” Rivera told City & State. “There’s a possibility of other tax raises? Then I’m all for it.”