Politico

Albany's famously secretive budget process returns under New York's new governor


ALBANY, N.Y. — On Monday, four days after New York lawmakers missed the deadline to pass a new state budget, Gov. Kathy Hochul spent less than six minutes talking with reporters about the state of negotiations. It was her first time publicly taking questions in 10 days, and she urged calm.

Her appearance was long overdue, history has shown.

That was the second-longest such silence on a late New York budget since governors were given a major role in the process in the 1920s, according to a review of press clippings and past governors’ schedules. The only other time a governor kept quiet for so long: March 2021, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo was dodging reporters amid sexual harassment accusations.

As Hochul, New York’s first woman governor, runs for a full term in office, she is being dogged by questions about the lateness of the state budget — long the symbol of dysfunction that had plagued the Capitol for decades. State budgets were late for more than 20 years, until Cuomo landed an on-time one in 2011, his first year in office, and made it a point of pride in the years that followed.

Hochul hasn’t shown urgency in talks over the $216 billion proposed spending plan, second largest in the nation to California. Hochul said instead it is the details, not the expediency, that is most critical. It has provided an opening to her political opponents as Republicans look to win the governor’s mansion for the first time since 2002.

“Kathy Hochul and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature are badly falling down on the job, giving up on the effort to do their most basic duty of passing an on-time budget,” Rep. Lee Zeldin (R.-N.Y.), the leading GOP primary candidate, said in a statement.


Hochul’s extended silence over the state spending plan has underscored a trend that has become increasingly apparent as Hochul’s first appearance on a gubernatorial primary ballot in June looms. The governor came into office last August vowing to bring transparency to the Capitol, but now responds to questions about that massive spending plan by declaring, “I don’t negotiate in public.”

The refrain has become so common that she has begun to joke about it. During her appearance on Monday, Hochul said that nothing about this year’s spending plan was out of the ordinary.

“This is a very normal budget process,” she said of the backroom discussions, which have yielded a plan to spend $600 million in state money to fund a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills.

But for Hochul’s critics, that normalcy is exactly the problem in a Capitol in which the budget process has been derided for decades over its secretive nature.

“It’s what we’ve expected for years,” Assemblymember Ed Ra (R-Nassau) said.

“There’s been no transparency as to where these negotiations stand,” Assemblymember Michael Lawler (R-Orangetown) said as his house was debating a measure to keep state workers paid while the final spending plan awaits approval. “It is still three people in a room … negotiating a budget behind closed doors.”

Hochul has previously argued that most people outside of the Albany bubble don’t care about blow-by-blow updates on the state of negotiations — “New Yorkers are most interested in results,” she said last month.

Her focus has been on “building consensus” among lawmakers rather than selling her positions to voters. “I’m committed to my partners in the Legislature; I will not be negotiating the budget in public,” she said.

And the final budget deal will come with plenty of victories for lawmakers because of the state’s unexpected surplus: property-tax rebates; record aid for schools; at least $2 billion for child-care subsidies and likely a gas-tax suspension as prices spike at the pump heading into the summer.

If she wins a contentious primary, all of those budget deals should also help Democrats in down-ballot races for the U.S. House and state Legislature as the party braces for a strong year for Republicans at the polls in November.


The climate in Albany, though, is admittedly better than with Cuomo, who resigned in August amid sexual harassment allegations. He prided himself on a top-down governing style that drew him few friends in Albany in this third term — leaving him little political capital when scandal struck and calls for his impeachment grew.

There’s a widespread agreement among legislators that negotiating with Hochul is a better experience than negotiating with her predecessor: “We had a tyrant as the governor” for the previous decade, Senate Deputy Leader Mike Gianaris (D-Queens) said.

But even the lawmakers who generally approve of her style have increasingly grumbled about how she’s not even keeping them in the loop on what items she wants in the spending plan that will easily top $200 billion.

“The unfortunate part is there have been a significant amount of non-budgetary issues thrown into the mix at the end,” Gianaris said.

Two particular issues have been the focus of most of the discontent through the marble hallways of the state Capitol.

After months of dodging questions about criminal justice reform issues, such as the use of cash bail — which is expected to be the main talking point for Republicans in this year’s elections — Hochul’s proposals to change the system in the budget weren’t unveiled until two weeks before the due date. And this plan was made known by a leak to the New York Post, before most legislators knew she’d be pushing for it.

Then, on March 28, she announced the Bills stadium deal, three days before an agreement on the budget that is expected to include the state’s $600 million contribution to that cost. Even after the budget due date passed, legislators were still in the dark on how the state would fund its share.

“I predicted this: If we were dealing with a budget with lots of conversations around policy, it was going to be late,” a seemingly frustrated Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said earlier this week.

With the budget now five days late and counting, there’s expected to be another form of normalcy returning to the budget process.

Legislation is constitutionally required to age for three days before receiving a vote, theoretically giving the public and members a chance to actually read bills. But governors are able to issue “messages of necessity” letting lawmakers circumvent this requirement and cast votes on measures containing hundreds of billions of dollars of spending before the ink is dry.

Many involved in budget talks predict a return to that process, which good-government groups blast for not giving lawmakers and the public adequate time to review the billions of dollars in proposed spending.

“Could you explain why it’s responsible to vote for [a budget] when we don’t have at least two days [or even maybe] three hours” to review the bills, asked Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville) on the Senate floor Monday.

“I completely empathize,” Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) responded. “I would prefer that we not have messages of necessity on budget bills. I would prefer that we did have the chance to review them.”

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