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Hochul, lawmakers reach budget deal nearly a week after it was due

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces a deal on the New York state budget Thursday April 7, 2021
Mike Groll
Office of the governor
Gov. Kathy Hochul announces a deal on the New York state budget Thursday April 7, 2021

Agreement has been reached on the New York state budget, nearly one week after the deadline, with voting on bills expected to begin Thursday night and wrap up on Friday.

The agreement includes some changes to the state’s bail reform laws, the renewal of a popular pandemic-era rule that allows restaurants to serve alcoholic drinks to go, and a temporary halt to the state’s gasoline taxes.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the deal late Thursday afternoon.

“The long-awaited day has arrived,” Hochul said.

One of the reasons the budget talks went into overtime: prolonged talks over changes to the state’s 2019 criminal justice law reforms. Hochul in late March introduced a 10-point plan to amend the laws.

In the end, legislative leaders who had resisted altering bail reform and other statutes agreed to make several gun-related crimes once again eligible for bail, and to ease some of the timelines on discovery laws, which require that prosecutors provide defendants with evidence against them.

Hochul called the revisions “common sense changes.”

“We’re not undoing bail reform,” the governor said. “We are just saying, ‘Where are some of the weaknesses, what can be bolstered? What offenses would people think should be covered?’”

The criminal justice changes are a win for Hochul, who was increasingly under pressure from political opponents, both Democrats and Republicans, in the 2022 gubernatorial race, to do something to curb the state’s rising crime rates.

Senate Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, who had argued that there’s no evidence linking the criminal justice reforms to rising crime rates, said she’s satisfied with the changes.

New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to reporters.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins speaks to reporters.

Hochul said there’s also agreement to amend what’s known as Kendra’s Law, to make it easier for judges to refer mentally ill defendants to mandatory hospitalization or outpatient treatment. The agreement will also include funding for 1,000 additional psychiatric beds and mental health treatment.

The governor agreed with legislators to spend an additional $4 billion in the budget on programs, including expanded access to child care, although it stops short of the universal child care plan backed by some in the Legislature.

Hochul said home health care workers will receive a $3-an-hour wage increase as part of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar package to raise the pay of health care workers. A plan known as Coverage for All, which would provide government-subsidized health care to undocumented workers, will be limited to those workers who are over the age of 65.

A leading budget watchdog group said the additional spending in the budget, which will reach $220 billion, is a concern.

The Citizens Budget Commission’s Patrick Orecki said Hochul’s budget was carefully designed to prevent outyear budget deficits for the next five years. He said additional spending that might not have a funding source in future years is going to throw the budget off balance.

He said he’s eager to see more details.

“A big part of breaking that down will be how much of that is one-time versus recurring (revenue), and does the recurring spending grow,” Orecki said. “Any recurring spending beyond the resources available would open budget gaps, and that’s a concern.”

Hochul said the budget will devote 15% of total spending to the state’s rainy-day fund to be used if there’s a future economic downturn.

The budget will also include the suspension of two of the state’s taxes on gasoline, worth 16 cents a gallon, to ease rising prices at the pump from June 1 until the end of the year. Hochul said the spending plan also includes the continuation of a middle-class tax cut and a property tax rebate.

“This budget will put more money back in people’s pockets,” Hochul said.

New Yorkers ordering takeout food will once again be allowed to also order alcoholic drinks to go. The measure, which sunsets in three years, requires that all alcohol be secured in a container with a lid or cap. Full bottles of wine or liquor will not be permitted to be sold.

Liquor store owners, who opposed the measure, will get some concessions, including being allowed to open on Christmas Day.

The spending plan also creates a new state entity to oversee ethics in a state that’s seen more than its share of scandals. It will replace the troubled Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, with a new commission that will continue to be appointed by the governor, Legislature and other statewide elected officials. The state’s law school deans will vet the choices.

Government reform groups said the new commission will still not be free of political influence, and pointed out that lawmakers missed an opportunity to have a truly independent commission. Rachael Fauss with Reinvent Albany said Hochul is not fulfilling her pledge to “blow up” JCOPE.

“From our perspective, the ethics box has not been checked,” Fauss said. “This is not the independent commission that the governor promised in her executive budget.”

Lawmakers were also poised to approve a deal that Hochul struck with the NFL and owners of the Buffalo Bills football team to fund at least $850 million in expenses for building a new stadium, in exchange for the team continuing to play in Buffalo for another three decades. Critics say the agreement, which could reach $1 billion when other expenses are counted, is too big a taxpayer giveaway to a well-funded league and the billionaire team owners.

Hochul defended the deal, saying some of the money will come from a gaming-related settlement with the Seneca Nation of Indians.

“There was a lot of passion,” Hochul said. “This is a regional priority for part of our state.”

Gaming companies will soon be able to bid on opening three downstate casinos, two years ahead of the original schedule, as part of the budget agreement.

And voters will have a say in November on whether to approve a $4.2 billion environmental bond act that would help combat climate change.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.