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New York Toughens Bail Law in $220 Billion Budget Agreement

ALBANY, N.Y. — Faced with rising concerns over crime in an election year, Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York State legislative leaders on Thursday reached agreement on an expansive state budget that included measures to strengthen bail restrictions and tighten rules for repeat offenders.

The $220 billion budget features a number of notable commitments, including hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for New Yorkers grappling with skyrocketing gasoline prices, more than a billion dollars to make child care more affordable and a substantial taxpayer subsidy for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

But the most notable and fraught negotiations centered on a nonfiscal initiative: the governor’s push to include changes to the state’s bail laws in the budget discussions, a stumbling block that caused lawmakers to blow past the April 1 deadline.

Under the agreement, Ms. Hochul, a moderate Democrat running for her first full term this year, managed to persuade a largely reluctant Democratic-led Legislature to enact changes to a 2019 bail law that had made only the most serious crimes eligible for cash bail.

The changes marked a significant win for Ms. Hochul, who, in negotiating her first budget, held firm with more progressive Democratic lawmakers who had strenuously objected to rolling back any bail reforms.

The outcome reflected the latest efforts by Democratic leaders in New York to address concerns voters have about public safety ahead of elections in November, when Republicans are expected to perform strongly.

Democratic leaders in Albany have argued that the 2019 reforms are not to blame for an uptick in certain types of violence in New York City. But they have also said that they hoped that alterations to the law would improve public safety.

The budget negotiations were somewhat atypical: The state is not facing the usual gloom-and-doom projections of deficits and is instead overflowing with an influx of federal money.

That gave Democratic leaders the flexibility to spread spending across a bevy of voter-friendly initiatives, even though it sometimes put Ms. Hochul at odds with lawmakers over how much to spend on certain programs.

An influx of federal money allowed lawmakers to spend more freely this year.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

The final budget includes ambitious spending increases to expand access to child care by providing subsidies to thousands of families who previously did not qualify, one of the top policy priorities for Democrats in Albany this year. The governor had proposed an expansion of child care services, but legislative leaders successfully pushed for even more spending.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said on Thursday that lawmakers had also reached an agreement with Ms. Hochul on additional spending to increase wages for home care workers and expand health care coverage for undocumented immigrants.

Ms. Hochul had sought to permanently allow bars and restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks to-go, a pandemic-era measure that expired last year. Under the deal, lawmakers agreed to allow to-go drinks again for three years, despite opposition from the liquor store industry and concerns that the measure could lead to more public drinking.

The governor clinched other top priorities, including a plan meant to overhaul the state’s troubled ethics commission, as well as $600 million in public money to help replace the Bills’ aging Highmark Stadium in the Buffalo suburbs, overcoming opposition from critics who denounced the subsidy as corporate welfare.

The budget will also expedite already planned tax cuts for the middle classand temporarily suspend some state taxes on gas from June until the end of the year in response to rising prices at the pump. Both measures could play well with suburban voters in an election year.

“This budget will put more money back in people’s pockets,” Ms. Hochul said on Thursday. “We all wanted to make sure that that was the outcome and lift those who have been hardest hit.”

There were no new tax increases included, but the state is poised to tap into a new lucrative stream of revenue: Lawmakers agreed to expedite licenses for three new casinos that are likely to open in the New York City area, overcoming resistance from some downstate legislators wary of erecting gambling establishments in their districts.

The exact details and precise dollar figures behind the budget for the 2023 fiscal year won’t become clear until lawmakers introduce legislative bills. They are expected to begin voting on bills on Thursday night, Ms. Stewart-Cousins said.

Lawmakers passed emergency legislation on Monday to ensure that state workers would be paid on time this week despite the delay, though the state comptroller warned that some paychecks may be late.

While late budgets are nothing new in Albany, this year’s delay served as a visible reminder of how much hasn’t changed in the State Capitol, even under a new governor. The budget process was as opaque as ever: The allocation of billions of dollars was negotiated largely behind closed doors between Ms. Hochul and the Democratic legislative leaders.

“This is a very normal budget process,” said Ms. Hochul, who vowed to increase transparency in government when she took office in August, when asked on Monday about the lack of transparency. “This is very normal.”

Lawmakers agreed to increase pay for home care workers, whose push for better treatment included a recent rally in Albany.Credit…Cindy Schultz for The New York Times

The delay was partly a result of Ms. Hochul’s introducing two proposals — changes to the bail laws and public funding for the Bills stadium — late in the process, pitting her against an increasingly emboldened Legislature. Many members of the governor’s negotiating team also fell ill with Covid-19 last week.

By far the most contentious aspect of the negotiations concerned Ms. Hochul’s efforts to modify the state’s bail laws.

The changes the governor and lawmakers ultimately agreed to represented a grudging middle ground between the stance of a legislative body largely reluctant to make any alterations and a 10-point proposal that Ms. Hochul vigorously pursued in private discussions. The deal would change the way some gun crimes are handled, allow for arrests to be made in certain instances of repeated offenses and ease the discovery burden faced by prosecutors.

“I think that it is a thoughtful package that reacts not just to a narrative, but actually reacts to the need for people to feel safe,” Ms. Stewart-Cousins said on Thursday. “And for us really to address the gun crime.”

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