6 Issues Kathy Hochul Will Face as New York Governor

In less than two weeks, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will become the next governor of New York, amid a period of exceptional tumult and uncertainty.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who held office for more than a decade and kept tight control over the state’s Democratic Party, is resigning after a report by New York’s attorney general found he had sexually harassed nearly a dozen women.

At the same time, the coronavirus pandemic is surging anew, raising thorny questions about public health, school safety and how best to manage New York’s precarious path toward economic recovery.

On Thursday, Ms. Hochul confirmed that she would seek a full term as governor in November 2022, so she will be tackling the state’s pressing issues while running a campaign in what could be a hotly contested election.

Bob Megna, president of the Rockefeller Institute of Government, an Albany-based think tank, said that he believed Ms. Hochul was well poised to tackle New York’s many challenges.

“She’s not new to the political environment, she’s not new to the policy environment and she has experience at the federal and local level, which a lot of people don’t have,” he said.

Here are some of the top issues facing Ms. Hochul.

Ms. Hochul must contend with a troubling uptick in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant. On Wednesday, the seven-day average of new infections in New York State was 3,715, up from a low point of 307 on June 26, according to a New York Times database. Hospitalizations rose to 1,559 from 823 over the same period.

The trend means that Ms. Hochul may have to make difficult choices on how to respond, including whether to pursue new state guidance to encourage more mask-wearing or implement vaccine mandates in places like nursing homes.

At a news conference on Wednesday, she said she would use the next two weeks to consult with experts and federal health authorities. She said one focus would be to increase the pace of vaccinations — less than 60 percent of New Yorkers have been fully vaccinated.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the chairman of the Assembly’s health committee, said that under Mr. Cuomo, a “large part” of health policy during the pandemic was decided by a small group of aides. He said he thought that would change in a Hochul administration.

“You may very well have different voices play a key role and that might have significant public policy consequences,” he said.

Ms. Hochul will also have to decide how to work with New York City on a pandemic response. Mr. Cuomo had often been at odds with city officials: he blocked Mayor Bill de Blasio’s idea for a shelter in place order last March, for example.

Ms. Hochul takes office amid significant upheaval over state measures meant to keep tenants from being evicted during the pandemic.

Less than three weeks before a state moratorium on evictions was set to expire, the United States Supreme Court struck down the provision on Thursday, clearing the way for thousands of eviction cases to move forward.

Tenants may still be shielded from eviction under other measures. A new federal eviction moratorium is in place until Oct. 3, but that measure has not prevented some evictions in other parts of the country. Another state law also keeps some tenants from being evicted because they couldn’t pay rent during the pandemic, but does not prevent suits from being filed, or tenants from being evicted for other reasons.

The court’s ruling, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed by several small landlords and a landlord group, stoked fears that thousands of New Yorkers could lose their homes.

While many landlord groups praised the ruling for allowing them to challenge cases where a tenant may have been improperly not paying rent and abusing the moratorium, the ruling also prompted calls from housing advocates for a new moratorium, which would have to be approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

After the ruling, Ms. Hochul said in a statement that she would work with state lawmakers to “quickly address the Supreme Court’s decision and strengthen the eviction moratorium legislation.”

“No New Yorker who has been financially hit or displaced by the pandemic should be forced out of their home,” she said.

The ruling also places more scrutiny on New York’s rent relief program, which Ms. Hochul will now inherit. The program has gotten off to a sluggish start, leaving many renters and landlords increasingly anxious and frustrated.

As of Tuesday, the state had distributed about $100 million in aid to roughly 7,000 households, totaling less than 4 percent of the $2.7 billion in available funds for the program. Renters and landlords continue to report errors and glitches in the application system.

Michael P. Hein, the commissioner of the state agency that runs the program, testified at an Assembly hearing this week that he had not spoken to Mr. Cuomo about the program, though he had kept in touch with others in the administration.

Ms. Hochul will assume control of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates a network of subways, buses and two commuter trains, as it is facing a severe crisis.

The M.T.A. has lost about half of its riders since the pandemic started. The subways are carrying about 2.5 million riders each weekday, down from more than 5.5 million in 2019. On the commuter railroads — the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North — ridership is down about 60 percent. A fare increase scheduled for this fall was postponed in hopes of luring back more riders.

The drop in passengers and an exodus of workers led the M.T.A. to make service cuts, some of which it has not yet restored. A gusher of emergency federal aid — $14.5 billion in all — has bolstered the authority against a huge operating deficit. But it could face a budget gap as soon as 2025, according to the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog.

Ms. Hochul also will have to identify a source of funding for one of the biggest public-works projects in the nation: the Gateway program to build a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River connecting to Pennsylvania Station. The tunnel alone is projected to cost $11.6 billion, half of which is supposed to come from New York and New Jersey.

Though Mr. Cuomo frequently contradicted Mr. de Blasio on decisions related to schools during the pandemic, the governor was conspicuously absent from the actual work of determining how to open classrooms last summer and fall.

Last week, as Mr. Cuomo’s administration was engulfed in crisis, the health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, announced that the state health department would not release guidance to school districts on how to reopen their buildings this fall, prompting outrage from senior education officials.

Ms. Hochul could play a larger role than her predecessor in helping the state’s roughly 700 districts make decisions on masking, testing, quarantining and other safety measures.

She signaled on Thursday that her health department would mandate mask-wearing in schools. Many of the state’s districts, including New York City, already have such mandates in place.

Ms. Hochul will also have to decide if she wants to pursue mandatory vaccination for all teachers and school staff, which would be the first statewide edict in the country.

For now, districts have to come up with their own rules on vaccines. New York City, for example, has already said all teachers will have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Ms. Hochul will have to decide whether to speed up a plan to bring congestion pricing to New York City.

The policy, which would charge tolls to drivers entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, was approved by lawmakers in 2019 at Mr. Cuomo’s urging, and over the objections of drivers from suburbs and other areas outside of Manhattan.

It is expected to generate $1 billion a year, which would be used to secure $15 billion in funding for other transit projects, including modernizing the subway system, although the money is not tied to any specific projects yet.

But the congestion pricing policy has been delayed, with critics suggesting that Mr. Cuomo did not want to alienate suburban voters as he considered a re-election bid next year. The governor effectively controls the M.T.A., which is implementing congestion pricing.

With Ms. Hochul saying on Thursday that she plans to run for governor next year, she will also have to weigh the political costs of supporting congestion pricing, which could influence the speed of its implementation.

State lawmakers adopted a $2.1 billion fund in the spring that would offer one-time payments of up to $15,600 to undocumented workers who lost work as a result of the pandemic and were excluded from other types of government aid.

The Excluded Workers Fund, by far the biggest of its kind in the country, was hailed by progressive Democrats. But lawmakers and organizers who pushed for the fund said that it faced opposition from Mr. Cuomo, who sought measures to prevent fraud and abuse of the program.

Now, advocates for workers fear that newly announced requirements — including showing proof of a 50 percent loss in income — may prevent thousands of eligible workers from receiving payments, and they hope Ms. Hochul will push to change that.

The advocates say that day laborers and domestic workers who get paid in cash, for example, may not be able to easily document their lost earnings.

“The requirements are far more restrictive than those for typical benefit programs, like unemployment,” said Angeles Solis, a organizer at Make the Road New York, who helped lead a coalition of groups to advocate for the fund.

The workers are still struggling with poverty, hunger and debt as a result of the pandemic, she said, including thousands of undocumented women.

“The principal obstacle has been Governor Cuomo, so we are hopeful that Kathy Hochul will really step up,” said Ms. Solis, adding, “Kathy Hochul has spent her career defending the rights of women in the workplace.”

Lawmakers and organizers are calling on the new governor and the state labor commissioner to drop the restrictions to apply, and to provide a hotline and in-person consultations with applicants. Otherwise, Ms. Solis said, “it’s set up to fail.”



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