ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Kathy Hochul is promising a safer and more affordable New York that will reassure both residents and outsiders to build their lives in the state suffering sharp population losses.
During her second State of the State speech, but her first full-fledged event due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, the newly-elected governor on Tuesday introduced a plan to restore access to what she calls the "New York Dream," one in which people “feel safe in their communities and supported by their government.”
“The question we must all ask ourselves is: Are New Yorkers living their best possible lives? If the answer is no, then we have more work to do. The reality is: that dream is out of reach for too many New Yorkers,” she told a crowd of 450 lawmakers, officials and political dignitaries gathered in the Assembly chamber at the state Capitol.
She alluded to the fact that New York leads the nation in population loss.
“We’re already seeing signs of out-migration that we cannot ignore, something that I know all too well from growing up in Western New York, at a time when jobs were so hard to find. We cannot allow that to happen again. The good news is: It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Hochul’s main driver to turn the tide is housing: She unveiled a massive plan called the Housing Compact that aims for 800,000 new homes in the next decade with specific growth targets for each municipality.
She earned a standing ovation for announcing a minimum wage increase above the current $15 that is tied to inflation, and a round of applause for a $1 billion proposal to create thousands of new units of mental health housing and open 1,000 hospital beds for psychiatric patients.
On public safety, Hochul explicitly said she wanted to revisit the controversial bail laws that Republicans effectively used in their midterm campaigns across the state. She proposed giving judges more direction to set bail by eliminating a "least restrictive means" standard, a move that may irk some of the progressive supporters of the current laws, but would address concerns about recidivism from Republicans and other moderate Democrats.
The speech clocked in at about 45 minutes, and the packed event — with a reception for guests and legislators at the executive mansion to follow — was a contrast to her first address last year, overshadowed by restrictions from the Omicron variant, as well as her chaotic ascent to office following Andrew Cuomo’s resignation in August 2021.
This was her first address since she won a difficult election for a full four-year term in November.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who will have to work closely with Hochulto achieve many of their shared priorities, called Hochul’s speech “good stuff,” on his way out of the chamber on Tuesday. The only element that surprised him was “how good she was. She was great,” he said.
“It’s all stuff that I’ve been fighting for a long time — mental health, housing,” he said. “She’s talking about how we come to common denominators when it comes to recidivism. So it was exciting.”
Lawmakers were optimistic but measured in their reactions. The address is a good indication of the administration's priorities, but never holds the details that could make or break consensus on top issues. She will introduce her budget proposal by month's end for the fiscal year that starts April 1.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie applauded Hochul’s minimum wage increase, but labeled the speech “pre-season” to budget negotiations. Many of the conversations with his conference regarding housing, taxes and public safety can’t happen until after Hochul’s more specific budget proposal in the coming weeks.
His conference has been most reluctant to revisit bail laws in the ways Hochul described, and when asked about her plan, the Bronx Democrat said he’d rather focus on preventative measures.
“I’m happy to hear that she wants to concentrate on the drivers of crime,” he said. “Like I said in my opening comments yesterday, I said that we need to be more proactive and not as reactive.”
Legislators are still adjusting to a Hochul administration style, and some expressed optimism her address could open up new avenues for collaboration.
Republican Sen. Jake Ashby of Rensselaer County said in a statement he was “encouraged” by Hochul’s mental health proposal and “hopeful she’ll be open to working across the aisle to invest in new counseling services for health care workers and first responders and to fortify the programming our veterans count on to transition to civilian life.”
When it comes to bail, however, “anything less than a full restoration of judicial discretion would be an insult to crime victims, law enforcement officials and every family who deserves to feel safe in their neighborhood," he said.
The broader issue of public safety is sure to divide both conferences in the weeks ahead.
Brooklyn Democrat Sen. Zellnor Myrie said that he and many of his colleagues are willing to have conversations about changes to bail, as long as they’re accompanied by legitimate policy data, not simply “anecdotes and scare tactics.”
“The State of the States are always good speeches,” he said. “They're always aspirational speeches. I appreciate that component. But the devil is in the details, and we'll see over the next couple of weeks how serious the administration is about having a fact-based conversation around bail.”