New York Gov. Kathy Hochul gives her first State of the State address Wednesday to a strictly limited audience as COVID-19 once again disrupts how the state functions and casts a shadow on the usually festive event at the State Capitol.
Hochul, who just two months ago was urging all workers to return to the office in January, is facing the largest number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began nearly two years ago.
During the past several days, the number of people testing positive has continually broken records, and Hochul is struggling to keep schools open by organizing a statewide effort to deliver rapid tests to districts.
“We’re not in a good place, I’m going to be really honest with you,” Hochul said Monday during a visit to Rochester. “This is the winter surge that we predicted.”
But Hochul will be focusing on more than controlling the pandemic when she lays out her 2022 agenda during her speech to a small number of lawmakers and other state officials at 1 p.m. in the state’s Assembly Chamber.
She’s already said she wants to focus on ethics reform and address weaknesses in government oversight that led former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his aides to become embroiled in numerous controversies. Cuomo ultimately resigned in disgrace in August over a sexual harassment scandal.
Earlier this week, Hochul proposed limiting all statewide elected officials to two four-year terms as well as a hard ban on outside income for those officials.
The proposals can be seen as a rebuke to Cuomo, who had intended to seek a fourth term in office and was paid $5.1 million to write a controversial memoir about his management of the first wave of the pandemic in New York.
The plan is being praised by government reform groups, including Reinvent Albany. The group’s John Kaehny said he’s also holding the governor to a promise she made this fall to completely revamp the state’s ethics board. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics, or JCOPE, has been widely viewed as a tool to protect the former governor and his allies from corruption investigations.
“I totally believe that the governor and the Legislature will do away with JCOPE this session,” he said. “And replace it with a new and hopefully independently appointed body with new ethics and disclosure rules.”
Hochul has also said she wants to make it easier to vote and will work on a plan for universal mail-in voting. Voters rejected two ballot proposals in November to pave the way for no-excuses absentee voting and to allow same-day voter registration.
The governor will also have to navigate disagreement in the Legislature over the changes made in 2019 to the state’s bail laws that ended most forms of cash bail. Opponents say it’s contributed to a crime spike and needs to be altered.
Unlike many of her predecessors, who inherited massive budget deficits, Hochul will not have to worry much about the state running out of funds anytime soon.
Sales and other tax revenues have come in stronger than anticipated, and generous federal aid packages in 2020 and 2021 have created a $5 billion surplus. The governor has announced in recent months the continuation of many infrastructure projects, including remodeling the New York City airports and Penn Station.
Hochul told a business group in the fall that she does not intend to raise taxes further on New York’s wealthy. And she has said that she wants to use some of the money to help fix the state’s broken child care system.
She’s often cited her decision to leave an exciting job at former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s office in Washington, D.C., to move back to Buffalo and take care of her young children.
“I ended up giving up a job I loved because there were no child care options in a city I had no relatives in,” Hochul told the Association for a Better New York on Nov. 18. “Fast forward to today. That should not be the case anymore.”
In addition to overseeing a busy legislative session, Hochul also needs to run an election campaign as she faces a June Democratic primary.
Though she is the early front-runner, she faces a challenge from Long Island Congressman Tom Suozzi, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and potentially, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.