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Monday, September 25, 2023

Stalemate: Albany Blows Past Budget Deadline a Second Time


Intraparty fighting continues in Albany as Democratic legislators continue to spar with Governor Kathy Hochul (D) over provisions in this year’s budget. 

The State Assembly was supposed to produce a budget by April 1. They missed that deadline and passed a stopgap budget to ensure all state employees, except State Assembly Members and Senators, would receive pay. The extender expired Monday, April 11. The legislature did, however, approve the Governor’s $2 billion extender on Monday to maintain state employees’ pay. Albany now has until Monday, April 17, to come up with a budget. 

And it seems less and less likely that that will happen, mainly due to the unique power dynamic afforded to the levels of New York government. Firstly, legislators have a scheduled spring vacation until April 17, so the likelihood of major agreements being made this week is slim to none. 

Secondly, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) (pictured right) does not offer an optimistic picture: “We’re still not close…nothing I would consider close,” when referring to closed-door negotiations. 

The reason for the massive delay is a series of disagreements between the liberal Democratic Assembly and Governor Hochul, who wishes to govern, at least ostensibly, as a moderate. Bail reform is said to have accounted for most of the deliberations at this point, as Hochul wishes to amend the 2019 law. Specifically, her plan is to end the provision that requires judges to use the “least-restrictive option” for ensuring a defendant returns to court. 

Reportedly, the second-most discussed issue is that of increasing the cap on charter schools, a policy the Governor favors that the Legislature does not. Talks have been so dominated by bail reform, that discussion on charter schools have been largely nonexistent. 

Assemblyman Doug Smith (R-Holbrook) (pictured right) of the Fifth Assembly District sat down with The Messenger to discuss the difficult negotiations unfolding in Albany, namely regarding the phantom conversations regarding the charter school cap. 

“It’s a complicated issue,” says Smith. “Dozens of Democrats and Republicans oppose lifting the cap at this time and in this manner because it’s more multifaceted than just raising the cap. We need to ensure that there is accountability and transparency in the schools and we’re not entirely sure we have the blueprint for that right now.” 

Smith, a former math teacher who serves as Ranking Member of the Education Committee, expresses doubt that the schools will function adequately, or potentially in good faith. 

“We have a set of standards for the public schools that they have to follow. The charter schools have a bit more freedom to act as they wish but we still need a standard. We need to make sure we have good actors before moving forward with this.” 

Smith also raises the issue of what he calls “zombie charter schools,” referring to unsuccessful charter school projects looking to be “resurrected” by potential buyers, one in particular called Success Academy. Buyers are lobbying for the cap to be lifted to expand their operations, while the teachers’ unions, who largely skew Democratic, are lobbying against the cap. 

Altogether, Smith’s insight paints this as a much larger, more convoluted issue than meets the eye. As a result, Smith believes this issue will be tabled ahead of the budget, not necessarily by virtue of lack of discussion, but rather the nature of the issue itself. 

Furthermore, Hochul is also attempting to push through her housing plan which has been widely panned by Long Island politicians of both parties. On Monday, April 10, three Long Island town supervisors rallied with local school boards in Hempstead to protest the housing plan. 

Smith also does not believe a resolution will be reached by Monday, stating it usually takes about 24 hours of solid debate to finish a budget. He believes another week extender is likely. 

Smith describes the negotiations as a “staring contest” in which the Governor “needs a win.” This is also correlated with the unusual power dynamic New York leaders possess. Most legislative bodies have drafting powers when it comes to budgets, but in New York that power rests almost entirely with the Governor, giving the Legislature small suggestive powers or accepting or rejecting it outright. Apart from that, the Governor wields significant leverage. 

This is also a product of precedent. Governor George Pataki (R) used this special executive power to strongarm certain policies into budget proposals. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) was able to enact two controversial policies, bail reform and congestion pricing, in 2019 via the state budget. But the budget disagreements are reflective of a much larger, more pervasive problem: the Governor is unable to control her Legislature and deal with them effectively. 

Many were not vocal in support during the 2022 Gubernatorial race, which almost ended in an upset by then-Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). They denied her judicial pick in Hector LaSalle to the Court of Appeals. And now, as New York has hemorrhaged population, dealt with a controversial set of bail laws, and continues to

deal with staggering living costs and quality of life issues, they deny the small remedies that might give Hochul a slight PR boost. 

Furthermore, the legislature voted themselves a near-30% pay raise late last year, making them the most well-compensated state lawmakers in the country. Hochul signed the package, while receiving nothing in return for her policy plans, some of which almost cost her the election. 

Carl Heastie says that “budgets aren’t just documents that you do what the Governor wants.” While Heastie is correct regarding the power the Governor has, the problem is that after a budget is late, the Governor can impose her own budget that includes or excludes policy. Even extenders can contain or lack preferred policy. The Governor can obtain crucial power after a budget is late, almost incentivizing stalemates to give them more power. 

At this point, it seems a government shutdown is one of the only ways Hochul can score a “win”, mainly by demonstrating to the public that she refuses to buckle on the controversial bail reform laws, a constant topic of kitchen table discussion since its passage in 2019. Many dissatisfied with the state of public schools also see the lifting of the charter school cap as a good virtue of our Governor. 

The PR for her housing plan has already been dead on arrival, so any face she can save on the other policies is face worth saving. 

The only downside: state employees will be without pay. The Legislature is almost certain to accuse Hochul of holding workers’ wages hostage. Regarding the Legislature’s pay, Wednesday, April 12, marks the first paycheck they have actually missed due to negotiations. Once a budget is enacted, they and any affected state employees, will receive back pay. The fact that state lawmakers – who just themselves a handsome raise – must now budget their savings accounts is a cruel irony that the Governor likely somewhat relishes in perpetuating. 

Should the negotiations continue past April 17, which is highly likely at this point, Governor Hochul can choose how the chess match continues: either she buckles on key issues that sour her already-average approval ratings, or stand her ground and force a shutdown.