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Hochul says New York state budget agreement is getting closer

Hochul, standing behind microphones, gesturing with her hand.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul briefs the media on state budget progress on April 25, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul broke an 11-day silence Tuesday to update New Yorkers on progress on the state budget, which is now four weeks late.

Hochul said she and the Legislature could have a final budget agreement as early as this week, but many issues still need to be settled.

“I'm never going to stand here and say it's completely done until we stand here and do the proverbial handshake,” Hochul said. “But it’s very close.”

She said there has been movement on making changes to the state’s bail reform laws.

Hochul has sought to give judges more discretion to set bail when defendants are charged with serious crimes. She wants to eliminate a clause that requires them to use the “least restrictive means” to ensure that an accused person returns for a court date. Legislative leaders were initially not enthusiastic to make those changes, saying bail reform was being unfairly scapegoated for a rise in crime.

While not confirming that bail reform is settled, the governor said she’s pleased with the progress so far.

“I'm satisfied with where we are today,” Hochul said. “But we still have a little bit of time to close all the deals down.”

She confirmed that there is growing consensus on a plan to raise the state’s minimum wage to $17 an hour, and in the future link it to the rate of inflation.

Hochul’s plan to ban flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, remains unresolved. But the governor said there will be an additional $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes in the state budget.

There have been reports of an agreement to allow more charter schools to open, though far fewer than the 100 new schools that the governor had sought. Hochul said she’s sympathetic to some parents who are seeking an alternative for their children.

“It is hard for me to turn my back on 50,000 parents who put their names on waitlists so their kids could have a different alternative,” Hochul said.

Legislative leaders do not support adding more charter schools. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie spoke about it on Monday.

“The governor wants them,” Heastie said. “Most people in the Legislature don’t want them.”

Jasmine Gripper with the pro-public schools group Alliance for Quality Education said the proposal is ill-advised at a time when existing charter schools are losing enrollment.

“You have to wonder why are charter schools even in the state budget right now,” she said.

Enrollment is declining in charter schools in New York City, Gripper said, and the schools have eliminated 7,000 seats.

Gripper said the charter school expansion is a top priority for former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire is financing ads to promote Hochul’s budget agenda.

“Is this more pay-to-play in Albany?” Gripper asked. “I think that’s really unfortunate.”’

Hochul has said political donors don’t have any influence on her decisions.

A late addition to budget talks is an effort to crack down on illegal cannabis stores that are competing with New York’s fledgling legal marijuana industry.

“When you set up these businesses to fail already because of illegal competition, we have to take some dramatic steps now,” Hochul said.

Hochul and the Legislature want to give the state’s Office of Cannabis Management and the state’s tax department the authority to conduct searches of alleged illegal operations. They could then either impose fines and provide a path to sell cannabis legally or have the power to shut them down.

Hochul also said she’s not concerned about the budget being nearly a month late. She said she believes the public is more interested in having a good budget than one that’s on time.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.