Gov. Hochul's budget prioritizes schools, health care, housing, and lays out changes to bail reform
New York Governor Kathy Hochul presented a $227 billion state budget plan on Wednesday that includes more money for schools and public transit and raises taxes on cigarettes. Hochul also put the spotlight on public safety, including another set of revisions to the state’s controversial bail reform laws.
The governor’s plan includes a 10% increase in school aid, finally fulfilling a nearly 20-year-old court order that said more money needs to be invested in the state’s poorest schools. Health care spending would be increased by about 8 percent, with $1 billion used for more psychiatric beds and residential mental health treatment facilities.
The governor is able to add the money because of larger-than-expected tax collections and funds remaining from federal pandemic relief programs that have led to an over $8 billion budget surplus.
“We’ve set the table for what should be one of the most prosperous times in our state’s history,” Hochul said. “But if New Yorkers don’t feel safe, they can’t afford to buy a home, they can’t pay their rent, the cost of everything keeps rising, then nothing we’ve done will make a difference.”
To that end, Hochul is proposing that 800,000 new housing units be built in the state over the next five years, financed mostly by private developers, with 100,000 units of affordable housing paid for by the state.
She wants to hold the line on taxes. No new broad-based taxes are proposed, but she wants to extend a temporary corporate tax surcharge. And she’d add a payroll tax surcharge for businesses in the regions served by the downstate Metroplitan Transit Authority to help stem pandemic-related losses for the transit agency. Hochul also wants to raise taxes on a pack of cigarettes by one dollar to $5.25.
The governor also detailed a public safety plan that includes $337 million to fight a surge in gun-related violence and provides $80 million to district attorneys to hire more prosecutors and better follow recent statutes that require them to turn over evidence to defendants in a timely way.
She also wants to revise the state’s controversial bail reform laws to allow judges more discretion to set bail when people are charged with serious crimes. Hochul portrays the changes as an attempt to clear up confusion caused by previous changes to the 2019 laws that she says conflict with each other. A standard imposed during changes made last year requires judges to choose the “least restrictive means” to ensure that someone accused of a crime returns for court dates.
“We looked at this very thoughtfully, and realize what judges are telling us that they don't have the clarity that they need to have, when someone's before them, and meets the standards of being bail-eligible,” Hochul said.
Democrats who lead the state Legislature have been resistant to making more changes to bail reform.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was noncommittal about the proposal. But he says he wants to look at all of the factors affecting crime and public safety.
“Can we just stop focusing so much on bail (reform)?” Heastie said. “And concentrate on the stuff that really drives crime.”
Hochul held up the budget for nine days last year to win revisions. She says she won’t comment on her strategies for getting an agreement this year.
The governor is also proposing that public colleges and universities be allowed to raise tuition, at a rate of up to 3 percent a year for the colleges and 6 percent for universities.
Speaker Heastie says he doesn’t see support for that proposal from members of his Democratic conference.
“I think it going to be tough for the conference,” Heastie said.
Another flashpoint in the budget is lifting a cap on charter schools in New York City, something many Democrats in the Legislature have opposed in the past. New York State United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union, says it would have a “devastating impact” on public schools.
The budget address comes at a time of increased tension between Hochul and Democrats in the Legislature. A dispute between the governor and the Senate over her choice for chief judge remains unresolved. And earlier this week, she vetoed an update to the state’s wrongful death stature, angering the measure’s sponsors.
Hochul shook hands with legislative leaders sitting in the audience before she began her speech, and she briefed them privately about her budget on Tuesday. Speaker Heastie says he is looking to work collaboratively with the governor over the spending plan.
Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not comment publicly after the budget address, but she’s said previously that she has a good relationship with the governor and does not expect any hard feelings from the standoff over the chief judge selection to affect budget talks.
Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, were more critical of the plan.
Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt, in a statement, says the governor’s plan taxes too much and spends too much, and does not provide “any real relief to struggling New York families and business.”
“New York needs a rescue plan – this isn’t it,” Ortt said.
SEN. JOHN MANNION WEIGHS IN
One sticking point in last year’s budget was bail reform, and Hochul reaffirmed her position that there needs to be changes to those controversial laws.
"So, let's just simply provide clarity. Let's ensure judges consider factors for serious offenders. And let's leave the law where it is for low level offenses. We move forward and focus on to our other public safety challenges.”
Hochul pledged to work in a collaborative way with the legislature on bail reform. Syracuse area senator John Mannion says he’s ready to build upon changes they’ve already made. He says public safety is just one of his priorities, and that there’s room for improvement to bail reform.
"I certainly support reasonable changes to this, and have all along through this process, what we would say is to strengthen some of those laws. I do believe giving judges greater discretion. I'm at people's doors...this is a big issue."
Mannion says judges will need to understand any changes, and act accordingly. He says sheriffs and district attorneys tell him they’re struggling to meet onerous and unreasonable discovery requirements, which relate to evidence disclosed before trial.
Meanwhile, he says he’ll be keeping a close eye on Governor Hochul’s health care promises. For example, she wants to spend an additional one billion dollars for health care capital funding, and $100 million to expand Medicaid coverage of preventative health services and access to primary care. Mannion welcomes the commitment.
"People are already not receiving services, be those mental health services, people who are aging, people with disabilities, or just traditional health care," Mannion said. "When can government step in to do something? This is the time that we have to do that."
He says caring for the most vulnerable is one of his top priorities, and it can’t come at the expense of any fiscal belt tightening. Mannion says he’d also like to see an increase in the state’s very low Medicaid reimbursement rate. He says hospitals and long-term care facilities are hurting and looking for help.
On other issues, Mannion says he’s opposed to the governor’s plans to expand charter schools and increase state fair ticket prices.