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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 budget that included measures to strengthen bail restrictions and tighten rules for repeat offenders.

The $220 billion budget would provide hundreds of millions of dollars in relief for New Yorkers grappling with skyrocketing gasoline prices by suspending some taxes at the fuel pump. The spending plan also commits billions of dollars toward affordable child care and includes a substantial taxpayer subsidy for a new Buffalo Bills stadium.

The most contentious negotiations had nothing to do with money but with the governor’s push to include changes to the state’s bail laws in the budget discussions. It was a stumbling block that caused lawmakers to miss 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 barred judges from setting bail for defendants charged with less serious crimes.

The revised law will direct judges to consider new factors — including whether a defendant is accused of seriously harming another person or has a history of gun use — in setting bail.

The changes are a significant win for Ms. Hochul, who faced fierce pushback on her bail proposals from a range of opponents, including fellow Democrats and public defenders. But the governor, in negotiating her first budget, held firm with the more progressive Democratic lawmakers who had strenuously objected to any rollback.

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

Democratic leaders in Albany have argued that the 2019 changes are not to blame for an increase in violence in New York City. But they have also said that they hoped that alterations would improve public safety.

Ms. Hochul described the changes as a comprehensive package that she said would continue “the progress we’ve made in the past to make sure our criminal justice system is fair.”

The budget negotiations were 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 number of voter-friendly initiatives, even though it sometimes put Ms. Hochul at odds with lawmakers over how much to spend on certain programs. The final budget is 3 percent larger than last year’s, cushioned not only by federal funds but also by stronger-than-expected tax revenues.

It includes ambitious spending increases to expand access to child care by providing subsidies to thousands of families who previously did not qualify. The initiative was one of the top policy priorities for Democrats in Albany — so much so that they greatly expanded child care funding beyond the level that Ms. Hochul had proposed.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, said on Thursday that Ms. Hochul had also agreed with lawmakers on additional spending to increase wages for home care workers and widen health care coverage for some 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 expedite already planned tax cuts for the middle class and temporarily suspend some state taxes on gas — about 16 cents per gallon of 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, adding that it would “lift those who have been hardest hit.”

There were no new tax increases included, but the state is poised to tap into a lucrative stream of revenue: Lawmakers agreed to speed up 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 individual budget items won’t become clear until the legislation is introduced. Lawmakers are expected to begin voting on Thursday night, Ms. Stewart-Cousins said.

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.

By far the most difficult aspect of the negotiations concerned the state’s bail laws, which showcased Ms. Hochul’s use of the leverage that governors typically wield in the state budget process. The governor also appeared to appease lawmakers on other fronts, including higher spending on their favored social programs.

The bail 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 address many of Ms. Hochul’s priorities, including allowing arrests to be made in certain instances of repeated offenses, lowering the threshold for prosecuting gun trafficking and easing some of the burden prosecutors faced to turn over materials quickly to the defense.

In addition, the package will expand the use of Kendra’s Law, which allows courts to mandate treatment for those who are found to be a danger to themselves or others — a provision that was made partly in response to a spate of violent episodes involving mentally ill people.

“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.”

Despite some opposition, lawmakers approved the deal Ms. Hochul reached with the Bills to steer $850 million — about $600 million in state funds and $250 million from Erie County — toward the construction of a new $1.4 billion stadium, the largest public subsidy for a stadium in N.F.L. history. She said on Thursday that the state would cover a large part of its share through funds from a settlement agreement with the Seneca Nation over disputed casino revenue.

Ms. Hochul, a Buffalo native, pitched the deal, which would also commit the state to over $250 million in capital and maintenance subsidies over 30 years, as a necessary investment to ensure the team remained in western New York, a move that is likely to help her with upstate voters this year.

Left-leaning lawmakers began 2022 with the hope that this would be the year to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive child care and early education system.

Though far from a universal system, the final package, Ms. Hochul said, includes a $7 billion dollar investment over four years that will help subsidize child care for families who earn up to $83,000 for a family of four. The governor said it would reach more than half of the young people in the state.

The deal includes $343 million in grants and would significantly increase reimbursement rates for child care providers, which lawmakers hope will help offset the damage the industry sustained during the pandemic. It also would provide an additional $125 million toward universal prekindergarten.

Responding to calls from environmentalists, lawmakers agreed to a $4.2 billion environmental bond act to help finance projects meant to protect against climate change. Officials also committed to making the state’s fleet of roughly 50,000 school buses 100 percent electric by 2035.

Left out of the deal, however, was an ambitious proposal Ms. Hochul supported to ban gas and oil hookups in new buildings starting in 2027, a move that would have made New York the first state to stop adding fossil-fuel burning stoves and heaters and require new buildings to use only electricity.

This year’s budget will also include language to replace the state’s beleaguered ethics panel, the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, a priority for Ms. Hochul, who vowed to bring a new era of government accountability to the scandal-scarred capital.

But critics say the proposal would create a body that is too similar to the current commission, which allows Albany lawmakers to appoint those who are charged with policing them.

The budget includes both wins and losses for Eric Adams, the New York City mayor, who had a long list of requests. He’ll walk away with a larger investment in earned-income tax credits and some changes to the state’s bail laws — though ones that are considerably narrower than those he had pursued.

Other measures that both Mr. Adams and Ms. Hochul supported, such as the renewal or replacement of the so-called 421-a housing policy, which offers tax breaks to developers in exchange for affordable housing units, were left out of the budget entirely. An extension of the mayoral control of city schools also was absent, despite Ms. Hochul’s support.

Ms. Hochul said that the debate around public safety had eclipsed those issues but described them as “urgent items that need to be addressed before the end of session.”

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