Governor Kathy Hochul triumphantly unveiled the broad terms of a tentative state budget deal Thursday afternoon at the state Capitol.
There were, however, two notable absences: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, legislative leaders and fellow Democrats with whom the governor’s office negotiated a new spending plan.
The state Legislature as of late Thursday afternoon had not begun voting on the many bills that make up the annual budget, though members hoped to conclude that process by Friday.
In fact, State Senator Liz Krueger, chair of the influential finance committee, later said the governor’s announcement was premature.
“I was quite surprised to learn that there was a press conference,” she told reporters.
The governor and legislative leaders are expected to resume tough negotiations Monday on his $214 billion proposal as they face new deadlines to issue paychecks on time for the state’s legions of workers.
Hochul, who took office in August, and legislative Democrats reached an agreement on a $220 billion budget that increases spending by $8 billion from last year and $4 billion from last year. to the Governor’s original proposal. The Assembly and Senate were approving the final money bills on Friday evening, and Heastie in the afternoon released a statement praising the spending plan.
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They have taken advantage of an influx of tax revenues and federal stimulus aid to increase spending or cut taxes in a wide range of categories. Major interest groups, who typically spent the final days of budget negotiations demanding more money or complaining about what they had received, left Albany happy with the outcome.
“Hochul is by far the luckiest governor in New York State history,” said John Kaehny, executive director of the nonprofit Reinvent Albany. “If she played slots, she’d just get cherry, cherry, cherry.”
But Hochul, who is due to run for re-election in November, has frustrated House Democrats after introducing two contentious issues late in the process: criminal justice reforms and $600 million in state aid for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.
The struggle within the party over these and other issues delayed final approval a week after the April 1 deadline. And some critics have denounced the opaque budget negotiations, despite Hochul’s promises to improve transparency.
Some observers say Hochul has remained particularly tight-lipped about some of her budget priorities, including criminal justice reform and state funding for a new Buffalo Bills stadium. The governor’s office insisted that Hochul had shared as much information about the stadium pact as possible.
“This is as bad a procedure and budget process as any we’ve seen,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the Common Cause/New York public interest group.
The state Legislature approved a $220 billion budget on Saturday morning, nine days after the deadline for passing a budget. The Senate finished voting on the spending bills before 5 a.m., and Assembly members voted shortly before 10 a.m.
At Thursday’s press conference, Hochul touted a new, more collegial approach to state budget negotiations.
“It’s been a phenomenal collaborative process from day one,” she said.
Bill Hammond, a senior health policy fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative tax think tank in Albany, said while nearly every state budget sets a new spending record, it’s acts of an unusual year because it is “the most abundant I have ever seen a state government.
Knowing this, Hammond said, many groups have approached lawmakers with a “wish list.”
“They’ve had a hard time saying ‘no’ this year, and it will come back to haunt them when that time of having lots of money runs out,” Hammond said, referring to budget changes that could lead to increased spending. for Medicaid in the years to come.
Many interest groups — such as the state’s powerful teachers’ unions and construction unions whose members will build the new Orchard Park stadium — came away delighted with the budget deal, Kaehny said.
A key theme of the final budget deal is where business and labor interests are aligned, Kaehny said.
The budget included $1.2 billion in bonuses for frontline health care workers, for example, a prospect that has made health care unions happy and gratified health care facility owners who now suffer less pressure to raise wages.
The budget authorizes the creation of three casinos in the downstate, a boon to the union representing hospitality and gaming workers. And that includes about $800 million in emergency Covid-19 rent relief.
“A smart, smart policy, because it makes tenants happy,” Kaehny said. “But who lobbied harder than the tenants on this? The landlords.”
Where Hochul got into trouble, observers say, was over stadium funding and criminal justice reforms.
State aid approval for Bills Stadium — a priority for Buffalo’s governor — was never in doubt, but it may have generated more backlash than she anticipated .
“It was done with no input, no meaningful public comment or, frankly, comment from the legislature,” Lerner said.
Ken Kruly, a local political blogger, said downstate progressives and socialist Democrats raised the stadium deal as an issue.
“I don’t think everything was really in danger,” Kruly said. “I think they just had to flatten things out a bit and fit it together with the whole puzzle.”
A more serious concern for lawmakers, especially state progressives, was Hochul’s proposal to make changes to some criminal justice provisions, such as bailable crimes.
Hochul argued that the changes are aimed at improving laws, not undoing previously enacted reforms. But liberals and nonprofit groups are not happy.
“The governor was successful in forcing the legislature to agree to things that should never have been in the budget,” Lerner said. “Like bail reform, a very complex issue that has taken the legislature more than a year to reach consensus and that requires evidence-based review, rather than an impulsive political fear campaign.”
Hochul made a political calculation in this budget that Kaehny said is nothing to worry about in a Democratic primary against a leftist challenger.
“The reality is that she made the budget harder than it needed to be for her,” he said. “But her eye is on the general election. And, you know, crime is going up. And so she’s trying to position herself against a Republican who’s going to be more conservative.”
Kruly, who previously held various positions in finance, said Hochul could have used the powers of the state constitution to carry more weight than she did, such as tying strings to bills of budget extension.
“She didn’t hit them in the head with a 2 by 4,” he said. “The collaboration seemed to be piecemeal. Not everyone is totally happy with everything, but that’s how budgets are made.”
As a moderate upstate Democrat, Hochul was successful in hitting her top budget priorities and addressing some of the priorities also mentioned by her potential future challengers, Kruly said.
Kruly said no matter how much elected leaders talk about a transparent process, it’s largely unrealistic.
“Instead of three guys in a room, it was two women and a guy in a room,” he said.
Kevin Hardwick, Erie County Comptroller and professor of political science at Canisius College, said Hochul’s biggest challenge was trying to make a deal with members of his own party who control both the Assembly and the Senate.
“You’d think that makes it easier — ‘Well, they’re Democrats’ — but it doesn’t,” he said. “I think that made it particularly difficult.”
Democrats are divided into smaller factions, ranging from moderate liberal to far-left liberal. And Hochul must count on all of them to support her in her campaign for governor.
“She had to walk a fine line,” Hardwick said, adding, “All that said, in the end, she got the job done.”
Buffalo Next reporter Jon Harris contributed to this report.