ALBANY, N.Y. — The high-stakes battle over New York State’s $200 billion-plus budget has been overtaken by a highly divisive issue that has become a political minefield in one of the nation’s most liberal states: public safety.
Concerns about crime helped Republicans capture some key House and State Legislature races in New York last year, and caused Gov. Kathy Hochul’s once insurmountable lead over her Republican opponent to dwindle to single digits.
Now Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, wants to change the state’s contentious bail law as part of the budget process, drawing forceful resistance from the members of her party who control the State Legislature. The standoff has effectively pushed most other issues to the side, and state leaders are fully expected to miss their deadline for approving a budget before 12:01 a.m. Saturday.
It is not the only battle Ms. Hochul faces with her party
Left-leaning Democrats stridently oppose a proposal by the governor that would change state law to give judges more discretion when setting bail, while also vocally pushing for their priorities, which include increasing taxes on wealthy New Yorkers and limiting rent increases for tenants.
Moderate suburban Democrats are angry about Ms. Hochul’s far-reaching plan to create more housing, which could override local zoning rules to build new homes in their districts.
Suburban lawmakers also oppose the governor’s plan to shore up the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s finances because of concerns that it would hurt local businesses. Mayor Eric Adams of New York City, typically an ally of Ms. Hochul’s, also opposes parts of the plan.
“I’m looking to restore people’s confidence in our system and part of that has to do with fixing some of the bail laws,” Ms. Hochul told reporters in the State Capitol on Friday afternoon. She called the meetings with lawmakers “productive.”
The closed-door budget negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders, an annual rite of Albany, are often used as a vehicle to resolve major policy debates.
But the rift dividing Democrats now has added resonance as the party — still stinging from last year’s bruising election cycle — looks toward 2024, when House and state legislative seats will be contested again.
“We need to listen to our voters, we need to listen to our constituents, and our constituents are not feeling safe,” said State Senator Monica R. Martinez, a moderate Democrat from Long Island who was re-elected last year after losing her seat to a Republican in 2020, in part because of her support for the bail reforms passed by Democrats in 2019.
Legally, the purpose of bail has always been to ensure that defendants appear in court as scheduled. Under current law, that directive is underscored by a requirement that judges consider a defendant’s ability to pay, and choose the “least restrictive” means they believe will ensure that defendant’s return.
Last year, Ms. Hochul delayed the budget to secure changes to the bail law that make it possible for judges to consider additional factors, including the severity of the crime and whether a defendant has a history of using or owning a gun, in setting bail.
This year, she has pushed to remove the “least restrictive standard” for those serious, bail-eligible cases. If adopted, the change would for the first time explicitly allow judges in New York to assess the threat they believe a defendant poses to the community, and set higher bail on those grounds.
The left flank of the party, a vocal force in Albany that has claimed credit for mobilizing voters in the final stretch of Ms. Hochul’s campaign, is resisting her proposed changes to the bail law, saying they would unnecessarily increase the number of people held in inhumane conditions before trial. Research shows that even short periods of pretrial detention can lead to increased recidivism.
Progressives Democrats are also seeking to attach a number of liberal measures to the final budget, while fighting Ms. Hochul’s proposal to increase tuition at the state’s public universities. These Democrats have also proposed far-reaching legislation to protect tenants from eviction and make multibillion dollar investments in education, health care and reducing the effects of climate change as a way of appealing to overlooked communities — and to expand the Democratic base.
“If you look at the election, it wasn’t Long Island and upstate New York Republicans that delivered her win, it was more progressive Democrats in the city of New York, who got her her win,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat from Upper Manhattan who is helping to lead the budget negotiations. “Yet clearly, a lesson from that election was she almost lost to a MAGA Republican in a blue state, spending $100 million.”
Despite opposition from the left, Democratic leaders in the State Senate and Assembly have begrudgingly expressed an openness to altering the bail law, although the specifics remain unresolved.
“We want to help to clarify the judicial discretion, as well as keep the integrity of our bail laws,” State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader, said on Thursday, adding that “nothing is off the table.”
The governor’s ambitious plan to address the state’s high housing costs by spurring the construction of 800,000 homes over the next decade is also in limbo. The Legislature has pushed back against a series of mandates proposed by Ms. Hochul to effectively force more housing on the suburbs, particularly in Westchester and on Long Island, where both Democrats and Republicans have voiced furious opposition.
Also unclear is how exactly state leaders will cobble together enough money to plug the M.T.A.’s expected budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025.
Ms. Hochul has proposed, among other things, increasing payroll taxes on businesses that benefit from the transit system, upsetting suburban lawmakers. Mr. Adams has traveled to Albany multiple times to lobby against the city being asked to contribute a share of the money. The Senate proposed creating a residential parking permit system for New York City to raise revenue, but lawmakers privately view the measure as unrealistic.
Lawmakers, already wary of delaying negotiations into the holidays next week, are preparing to potentially pass stopgap legislation to ensure that state employees are paid if the budget is not approved in time, with the protracted discussions over bail and housing mostly to blame.
“I would say those two issues have taken up most of the oxygen in the room,” Carl E. Heastie, the Assembly speaker, said on Thursday, adding that leaders had not discussed overall spending and tax proposals. “I’ve always said, a good budget is better, is more important than an on-time budget.”
The governor and legislative leaders have yet to discuss Ms. Hochul’s proposal to expand the number of charter schools, an issue that has put her at odds with many left-leaning Democrats who see such schools as a threat to the public education system. Ms. Hochul wants to eliminate the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in the New York City, casting her plan as a common-sense approach that would give parents more choice in their children’s education.
Those efforts have riled the state’s influential teachers union, which endorsed Ms. Hochul in last year’s Democratic primary — the union’s first endorsement in 16 years.
Andy Pallota, the president of the New York State United Teachers, which represents nearly 700,000 workers, said that while he appreciated Ms. Hochul’s significant investments in public education, “We don’t like to see billions going right out the back door to the charter industry.”
This budget cycle, like previous ones, has filled the State Capitol’s halls with the familiar sights and sounds of those seeking to shape the budget’s final outcome.
Thousands of health care workers descended on Albany last week, holding a campaign-style rally at a stadium to call for higher wages. Lobbyists for moneyed industries and grass-roots efforts alike continue to cycle in and out of meetings with lawmakers, pushing for, among other things, a ban on menthol cigarettes and a higher minimum wage.
And left-wing activists pushing to increase income taxes on the wealthy have gotten arrested after holding overnight stakeouts. Given that governors hold outsize sway during budget negotiations, it is far from clear which, if any, of their demands will be realized.
On Friday, Ms. Hochul appeared to dash some of those hopes.
“I have been very clear that this is not the year to raise taxes,” she said.
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