ALBANY – When Kathy Hochul becomes the 57th governor of New York this month, she will do so at an extraordinary moment in the state’s history.
Leading the state through the pandemic as the Delta variant has upended what the public – and scientists – thought they knew about Covid-19 would be enough to keep any chief executive busy.
Throw in social upheaval, a polarized populace, how to balance a $200 billion budget and, oh by the way, the future of the professional football team that plays its home games a short drive from her front door and you have the makings for a lot of sleepless nights.
Here are just a few matters that will take up her time and define her abilities to govern under fire in a geographically and politically diverse state that will still be reeling from the scandals that led to the resignation of Andrew M. Cuomo.
1. Controlling Covid
The Covid infection numbers have sharply risen, with the new daily infection rate climbing more than 10 times the level in mid-June. Hospitalizations, too, are rising, as are Covid infection patients in intensive care units on ventilators. The number of deaths the state counts each day – using a process that excludes many places where Covid people might die, like at home – are also rising.
Hochul faces some key decisions in how to handle the pandemic’s worsening moment. Does she take on the role Cuomo grabbed for himself in 2020 and become the sole decider of Covid responses, such as economic shutdowns and social distancing, to the exclusion in major decision-making by county health departments that prepared for years for a pandemic? Or does she adopt the more recent Cuomo 2021 model by taking some direct routes, like mandating the relatively few direct care workers in state-owned facilities be vaccinated, but now leaving it up to localities to decide everything from indoor mask mandates to vaccination requirements for certain individuals?
Cuomo was sharply criticized for how the Covid vaccine program was rolled out, though the situation improved as the federal government boosted its vaccine shipments to New York and other states earlier this year. Since then, about 58% of all eligible New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated.
Cuomo shut down state-run mass vaccination and testing sites, on the theory that resources could be better applied to low-vaccination rate areas. The jury on that approach, however, is out. And on testing, at a time when students and teachers are set to end summer vacations and more people are being told they have to get tested if they won’t get vaccinated, Covid testing is no longer as easy as it was to get last year. For many, it can cost upward of $100 per test now that the state no longer offers free testing. Does Hochul put on a more aggressive vaccination and testing effort than Cuomo?
3. State budget
In the coming months, Hochul will have to craft a new $200 billion state budget. She will be joining Albany’s most exclusive club: the person in the room representing the Executive Branch in secret talks with the heads of the Assembly and Senate.
While tax revenues have improved sharply over 2020 levels as the economy opened up, the future is uncertain, as worries about new economic lockdowns this fall or winter can be scratched just below the surface among state budget officials.
Hochul will have to decide how and when she wants to structure the Executive Chamber staff. Cuomo cut her out of many of the major issues of the day, and she will need to figure out who she wants to keep on any of the staff from Cuomo’s Executive Chamber payroll.
Does she make the changes quickly, suggesting she’s been quietly preparing to become governor for some time now, or more slowly over the coming months? When David Paterson suddenly became governor in 2008 after the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, the new governor required all top staff, including agency commissioners, to submit their immediate resignations the day he took office. Some held onto their jobs, while Paterson soon brought his own people into senior jobs at the Capitol.
A key question being asked in many circles: Will she create a less top-down gubernatorial administration that does not get bogged down in governmental minutiae, like wording of highway signs or the state’s response to natural disasters? Cuomo made clear, privately and publicly, that the state government was his to run and he was averse to sharing the limelight or key decision-making abilities.
Hochul, whose time in office will run out at the end of December 2022 unless she is reelected governor in a general election the previous month, has limited time to restore or at least improve public trust. Will she be less consumed with secrecy than Cuomo and put a halt to her predecessor’s penchant for having his office, and all state agencies, act in less-than-transparent ways?
Hochul’s relations with state lawmakers can only be improved compared with Cuomo, who was roundly disliked by rank-and-file and leaders in the two houses. They did business with him because they had to, not because they enjoyed it, many have said privately for years. The new governor’s ability to treat the Legislature as a separately elected branch of government will go a long way to deciding how successful or not she might be with her policy and fiscal agenda.
6. Policy matters
Hochul’s roots are in moderate Democratic Party politics, though she has skewed to the left in more recent times as Albany has leaned leftward with the complete takeover now by Democrats at the State Capitol. How does she dance between upstate moderate roots of her party and liberal New York City lawmakers who dominate the Legislature?
Hochul will inherit many contentious issues. The state’s marijuana legalization program, which will feature retail outlets selling the drug to adults in a new cultivation, distribution and sales system, has been delayed by a number of factors, including Cuomo’s distractions with scandals. Does Hochul get that back on track?
The Hochul administration will also have to decide if the process by which Cuomo’s Gaming Commission is overseeing the awarding of new mobile sports betting operators should be changed.
And the new governor inherits something that only began recently: negotiations among the state, Erie County and the owners of the Buffalo Bills about whether a new NFL stadium should be built in Orchard Park and if the team’s ask for $1.4 billion in taxpayer money should go to fully fund the facility.
Major environmental issues are being debated, like climate change policies and how to more swiftly enact them; battles over how to repair crumbling upstate roads and bridges; and whether the gubernatorial-controlled agency that runs the New York City transit system should move forward with cashless subway station booths.
Then there is this not-so-insignificant fact: Almost 500 pieces of legislation passed by lawmakers during the 2021 session that ended in June have not yet been sent to the governor for signature or veto.