Gov. Kathy Hochul entered office with some unclear positions on many pressing issues in the Empire State. She cultivated a reputation as a relatively conservative Democrat during her time as a local official and in Congress. Her two terms as lieutenant governor would suggest she is a moderate Democrat like her predecessor, however different their political styles might be. Hochul is now in the position to define her own political brand like never before.
The timing of her ascent to the Second Floor coincides with the time of year when any governor has to decide what to do with the hundreds of bills passed by the state Senate and Assembly over the past year. Hochul has signed 11 bills into law thus far to demonstrate her commitment to issues like criminal justice and climate change mitigation. That leaves hundreds of other bills that will show what the new governor thinks on a range of important issues.
Albany tradition dictates that legislative leaders – unless they want a potential political fight on their hands – hold onto the bills they passed until the governor is ready to act on them. If legislation reaches the governor, Hochul has ten days (minus Sundays) to either sign it, veto it or do nothing, in which case the bill automatically becomes law. This system means that if Hochul is anything like her predecessors, she will schedule lots of bill signing ceremonies in the upcoming months to highlight bills she likes. The final weeks of December might feature a flurry of vetoes like years past.
Lawmakers have passed a total of 460 bills, according to the Legislative Retrieval System, that have yet to reach the governor. An analysis by City & State found that 10 bills were particularly representative of the choices Hochul faces in meeting goals like restoring faith in government, fighting the pandemic, dismantling systemic racism, reducing gun violence and doing something about a warming planet. These bills might not generate the most headlines whatever Hochul does with them, but they will say a lot about what type of governor she is becoming early on in her tenure.
DOING SOMETHING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE
Recent flash flooding showed, yet again, how New York has to address climate change by increasing its resilience to natural disasters. The state might be better prepared in the future if and when utility companies implement disaster plans required by a bill passed by state lawmakers. The legislation could even save companies money in the long run, because they would be required to reimburse customers for prolonged outages in the future. Signing this bill into law is one way for Hochul to claim she is really serious about preparing the state for climate change. While she has already signed legislation that aims to accelerate the adoption of zero emissions vehicles by 2035, she still has to decide what to do about legislation that aims to limit carbon emissions from concrete used by the state. Industry groups have criticized the bill for hurting their bottom line too much. If Hochul signs it into law, it would be one example of how she is prioritizing efforts to meet the state’s climate goals over economic concerns.
DISMANTLING SYSTEMIC RACISM
REDUCING GUN CRIMES AND MASS INCARCERATION AT THE SAME TIME
Violent crime has reached historic lows in recent years, though the numbers have ticked upward (and might be tapering as of late) in the past year or so. Republicans in particular have been eager to use that trend against Democrats and many of the criminal justice reforms they support. Legislators passed several bills this year that aim to crack down on untraceable ghost guns, which are assembled from parts that lack serial numbers. One bill awaiting Hochul’s signature would criminalize the possession of such guns and require gunsmiths to stamp those they put together with identifying marks. This could offer the governor a chance to say she is combating gun crimes without leading to major increases in the number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons. The governor, who signed a high-profile parole reform into law last week, can keep progressives happy by also signing legislation decriminalizing the possession of hypodermic needles, which have been used in the past to incarcerate people with substance abuse problems.
RESTORING FAITH IN GOVERNMENT
Hochul has already said she supports using partisan gerrymandering to benefit Democrats at the federal level, but she could still do something about drawing fairer maps for local elected officials. A bill awaiting her signature would forbid local legislative bodies from creating districts that needlessly divide local communities to further partisan advantage. That could make local elections more competitive and convince more voters it’s worth their time to vote. They could even get a double dose of electoral faith if Hochul signed legislation to track absentee ballots so New Yorkers are not left wondering whether local boards of election counted them – a big problem in recent years with the state’s much-criticized elections system.
The coronavirus hit nursing home residents disproportionately hard, which is one reason why lawmakers passed a bunch of bills this year that aim to increase reporting by facilities across the state. Hochul has been criticized by some lawmakers for a purported role in helping her predecessor formulate deadly nursing home policy during the pandemic. Legislators passed a package of bills this year that aim to limit how the coronavirus and other infectious diseases can spread in facilities. One of the bills aims to do this by establishing new procedures for how staff can flag ongoing issues under the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program.
A big side effect of COVID-19 has been how it has inspired a wave of violence against Asian-Americans while highlighting the disproportionate poverty seen in that community and others. Ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill before the pandemic that would require state agencies to gather better data about Asian-American communities by classifying them by ethnic groups rather than as a single bloc in state demographic reporting. That could give policymakers additional insights into fighting COVID-19 and associated challenges if Hochul signs the legislation into law