Hochul’s late budget strategy seems like it worked

It took a while, but the governor got concessions on bail, charter schools and more.

On top of record school funding and inclusions from the Legislature like a free bus pilot program, Hochul has plenty to tout as she finds herself navigating a fractious working relationship with two supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly.

On top of record school funding and inclusions from the Legislature like a free bus pilot program, Hochul has plenty to tout as she finds herself navigating a fractious working relationship with two supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly. Don Pollard/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Nearly a month after the April 1 deadline, Gov. Kathy Hochul finally announced a “conceptual agreement” on the state budget. It followed weeks of contentious negotiations with legislative leaders about her policy priorities. The state Legislature took a few more days to finish approving all 10 bills that make up the budget, officially marking the end of the latest budget in over a decade. But that didn’t stop Hochul from declaring victory. “I said I would do the hard things in my State of the State. I do not back down from a fight – not now, not ever,” Hochul said when she announced the deal. “We’ve accomplished a great deal. We’ve had a lot of intense conversations, but I believe New Yorkers can be proud of this budget.”

The strategy of conceding a late budget over an on-time spending plan that included fewer of her goals has been working for Hochul so far. Although her ambitious housing plan was jettisoned weeks ago, she won further concessions on the state’s bail laws and an agreement to open 14 new charter schools in New York City. On top of record school funding and inclusions from the Legislature like a free bus pilot program, Hochul has plenty to tout as she finds herself navigating a fractious working relationship with two supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly. But political observers said she’s still finding her footing in office and warned that her tactics may not be prudent in the long run. 

In a repeat of last year, Hochul first and foremost held up discussions in order to win rollbacks to the 2019 bail reforms, signaling it again was extremely important for the governor. Despite intense pushback from lawmakers and reticence from legislative leaders, Hochul got her changes approved. “All the insiders may have been upset that the budget was late, but I think it was a calculated decision to, even if they had a late budget, push the budget until they got wins,” said Shontell Smith, the former chief of staff and counsel to the state Senate Democrats. “I thought this was good for her.” After finding a bail compromise, Hochul next held firm on charter schools, falling short of lifting the regional cap for New York City that would have opened the door to around 100 charters but still winning up to 14 new schools in the city by reissuing so-called zombie charters from schools that either closed or never opened.

Hochul’s approach to the budget negotiations marked a stark departure from her predecessor Andrew Cuomo, who prided himself on passing on-time or “timely” budgets after state leaders, for decades, would routinely pass budgets that were months late. But unlike Cuomo, who maintained his influence in Albany with the help of the state Senate Independent Democratic Conference and a divided Legislature, Hochul took office with powerful supermajorities in both chambers. “(Cuomo) started to run out of steam when supermajorities showed up in 2019,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group. “It’s hard – she’s using her levers of power (and) as long as the benefits outweigh the risks, why not keep doing it?” He pointed out that she’s not the first Albany leader to go this route, noting that former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver pushed the budget as late as July in order to get concessions on rent laws.

For now, it would seem that Hochul is benefiting from her late budget gambits, even if she didn’t get her ambitious housing plan and made concessions on other issues, such as transportation funding and the environment. “She certainly came out of it with an enormous amount of money to spread around the state, not just to advance her own priorities but to meet the needs – political or otherwise – of community leaders from Brookhaven to Buffalo,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. But he added that in some ways, Hochul is still “a political work in progress.”

It’s an assessment that Basil Smikle, the former executive director of the state Democratic Party under two previous governors, agreed with. “I think in this budget negotiation, sometimes she seemed like she was on the defensive, but that she was able to get some victories,” he said. “Going forward, she needs to articulate more of a longer-term vision for what she wants and really find specific items she can highlight to say – similarly as Cuomo did – that there’s leadership coming out of Albany.” For her second budget and her first elected year as governor, Hochul’s choices in budget negotiations resulted in net positives, even if all of her moves didn’t end up the way she wanted. “At worst, it’s still unclear how shrewd a negotiator is and what her ultimate priorities are,” Levy said.

Victories in the state budget were particularly important for Hochul this year after a sharp rebuke of her first state Court of Appeals chief judge nominee by the state Senate. In an unprecedented move, lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee voted against advancing Hector LaSalle to the floor for a full vote. And when the chamber finally put him before all its members, Democrats rejected him, forcing Hochul to pick a different candidate, whom the state Senate later approved. Although viewed by many as a significant political blow, the governor denied that her influence in Albany took a hit over the chief judge fight after announcing the budget compromise. “I will never shy away from a fight,” Hochul said at the time while touting the successes of the budget. “You’re not always going to win … but the state requires a leader who’s not afraid to get knocked down once in a while because I always get back up.”

But political observers warned that relying on late budgets to achieve her priorities likely won’t continue to work out for Hochul. “This was a good strategy for this year,” Smith said. “I don’t know if this will be a strategy she should employ in future years.” She added that she hopes that Hochul’s “leadership style will be more defined” so that she doesn’t have to consistently use a late budget as her key bargaining chip.

Hochul’s approach next year could be telling given that it’s an election year for state legislators, members of Congress and president. After a lackluster performance by Democrats in key suburbs that cost the party several House seats, and ultimately control of the House, Democrats are looking to shore up their ranks across the board. “At some point, someone’s going to put together a narrative that Albany can’t get its act together,” Horner said.

Although Hochul doesn’t face reelection until 2026, vulnerable Democratic lawmakers returning for a third year in a row to voters with a late budget could add fuel to Republican attacks, which have already proven effective on Long Island and in parts of the Hudson Valley. And repeatedly late spending plans could reflect poorly on Hochul when she does face voters again. “She’s got to not only show that she can work with the Legislature, but that her vision is being implemented through the Legislature,” Smikle said.

Still, not all observers think that keeping with the strategy will cost her in the long run. “Late budgets, even by a matter of weeks, is a bad habit to get into,” Levy said. “But if it’s a choice between being attacked for missing a deadline that most people don’t understand and delivering major on major political promises that people really care deeply that you keep, I think any politician is going to go for the latter.” He said that a downgrade for the state from a major credit rating agency or significant impact on school budgets and nonprofit funding would be among the few ways that the political scales might tip.

For her part, Hochul has made it clear that the late budget is working for her. “I think when New Yorkers look back, they don’t care so much about the time elements involved because that time element gave me the necessary time to really get signature bills and ideas over the finish line,” she told reporters shortly before lawmakers finished passing the budget. And her victory lap began exactly where she first drew her line in the sand: with changes to bail reform.