Newsday's Ken Buffa and Joye Brown discuss the topics that Gov. Kathy Hochul brought up in Tuesday's State of the State address. Credit: NewsdayTV

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday proposed giving judges more discretion to hold people on bail, hiring hundreds more prosecutors and state troopers, and expanding mental-health treatment — a multipronged initiative aimed at countering criticism over public safety that hounded her during last year’s election campaign.

Hochul, a Democrat, made the proposals during a wide-ranging State of the State address at the State Capitol.

Hochul proposed adding 1,000 more beds for patients in mental-health facilities and 3,500 housing units for New Yorkers with mental illness. Of the 147 proposals in Hochul's speech, this one received the longest and loudest applause from legislators in either political party. The initiative is tied to a push by New York Mayor Eric Adams to move homeless people with mental illness from the streets — which he has said will reduce crime. 

Besides addressing public safety, Hochul also made significant proposals to boost education spending, raise college tuition, guarantee steady minimum wage increases, expand access to contraception and discount train tickets. Among the proposals:

  • Increasing “Foundation Aid,” the largest category of state assistance for K-12 school districts, by $2.7 billion, or 13%. A hike had been guaranteed by lawmakers last year and this year’s bump is slightly smaller than the $4 billion in last year’s budget.
  • Indexing minimum-wage increases to the consumer price index to ensure regular increases while capping the maximum one-year hike.
  • Raising tuition to State University of New York and City University of New York campuses by 3% or less, tied to a higher education price index.
  • Making the “City Ticket,” a low-cost, flat-fare train ticket, available 24/7.
  • Allowing more families to qualify for state assistance for child care by changing the maximum household income.
  • Allowing pharmacists to directly prescribe hormonal contraception medications, following the lead of 20 other states.
  • Creating more tax credits for farmers to overset wage hikes approved for farmworkers last year. 
  • Proving $3,000 "retention bonuses" to new health care and mental hygiene workers who stay on the job for a year and boosting the minimum wage for home-care workers. 

Hochul is kicking off her second full year in office after winning a closer-than-expected election in November over Republican Lee Zeldin. During the campaign, Zeldin repeatedly attacked Hochul about a rise in crime and the state bail law.

Approved in 2019 by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, bail reform laws eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. Critics have said it contributed a to a crime rise during the pandemic, but supporters pointed out that many states saw increased crime since then, regardless of whether bail laws were altered.

Last year, Hochul persuaded legislators to amend the law to give judges more discretion around repeat offenders and certain types of offenses.

Now she’s proposing more discretion when determining whether to hold a defendant on bail, release him outright or release him with some sort of monitored supervision. The governor wants to eliminate a provision in the law that limits judges to applying the “least restrictive means” necessary to ensure a defendant’s return to court.

The Hochul administration, in a policy book accompanying the speech, said the move would not increase the overall rate of pretrial incarceration. Though technical sounding, such a change would give judges much more latitude in individual cases.

"Bail reform is not the primary driver of a national gun wave or crime wave or created by a convergence of factors, including the pandemic," Hochul said. "But I think we can agree the bail reform law as written now leaves room for improvement."

Whether her idea flies will be up to Democrats who control the Senate and Assembly — who have been more liberal than the governor on this topic.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), while praising other initiatives Hochul unveiled, was cool to the bail overhaul, saying: "I haven't really looked at the proposal."

Heastie did praise Hochul's related proposals for increasing funding for "reentry" services, such as job training, for inmates leaving incarceration and for programs that divert those with addiction and mental health issues away from prison and into treatment programs.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) didn't comment.

Progressive groups panned the bail idea, saying it "would undermine the recent progress to make New York’s criminal justice system fairer and more just, but also would disproportionately harm poor New Yorkers."

Also on criminal justice, Hochul proposed launching four new classes of the state trooper academy to boost the ranks of State Police. She also proposed to triple spending on a program called “Aid to Prosecution,” which she said will spur the hiring of hundreds more prosecutors around the state.

Hochul won more applause from Democrats on issues such as linking the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index, which means it could rise with changes in inflation. The wage is currently $15/hour downstate and $14.20/hour upstate.

Heastie called it a "solid approach" compared with having the legislature weigh a wage change every few years. 

Republicans said it would hurt small businesses.

"There are businesses that simply won't survive," said Sen. Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue). "She talked about how great it will be for employees. It's not so great for employers who can't pay you and have to lay you off."

In contrast, Hochul's proposal to increase spending to provide more beds for mental health patients in treatment facilities won bipartisan applause. She noted the state had been shedding beds for years.

"We will add 1,000 inpatient psychiatric beds, funding 150 new beds in state facilities and bringing 850 psych beds in hospitals back on line," Hochul said. "This is more than half of the beds we have lost since 2014 and they will serve more than 10,000 New Yorkers each year. These actions are overdue." 

While Tuesday was for outlining a governor's vision, later this month Hochul will have to convert her ideas into dollars when she proposes a state budget.

The governor and the two houses will have about two months to haggle before reaching April 1, the start of a new fiscal year and, therefore, the budget deadline. A governor has considerable leverage over the State Legislature to get it to adopt her spending plan. But a looming issue will be how hard her fellow Democrats in the legislature try to push the governor to the left. 

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