New York budget talks inch forward as Hochul, legislative leaders reach tentative bail agreement

ALBANY — A budget deal is finally coming together as Gov. Hochul and legislative leaders reportedly reached a tentative agreement Monday that would give judges more discretion to set bail for serious crimes.

Hochul’s insistence on including overhauls to New York’s bail laws has hampered negotiations for weeks and left the state without a spending plan despite the April 1 start of a new fiscal year.

The compromise, City & State reports, could grant jurists greater leeway to set bail in violent felony cases by removing the “least restrictive means” requirement — but would keep in place a section of the law defining bail as a tool to ensure a defendant returns to court.

“I’m going to make sure we have bail laws that give judges the discretion that I believe they should have,” Hochul said earlier this month. “I want to let judges know their responsibilities and make sure that they’re accountable.”

The Democratic governor’s plan has been met with resistance from progressive members of her own party and advocates. They say further rollbacks to bail reforms approved in 2019 limiting pretrial detention for most nonviolent offenses are unnecessary and would gut the essence of the law.

The statute was amended in 2020 to apply bail eligibility to more offenses, such as criminally negligent homicide and manslaughter, and tweaked again last year to allow judges to consider previous offenses and whether a gun was involved or an order of protection was violated when setting bail.

Hochul initially called for removal of both the “least restrictive means” clause as well as the “return to court” standard that judges must consider when setting bail.

“There will be changes to [the] bail system to make clear judges have discretion and least restrictive standards will be removed for serious offenses,” a source with knowledge of the negotiations told City & State. “The governor should be happy.”

Assemblywoman Latrice Walker (D-Brooklyn), who’s currently on a hunger strike to protest Hochul’s bail changes, railed against the governor’s plan.

“The number-one issue in our state budget this year is locking up Black and brown people,” Walker said during a rally Monday at the Capitol. “The governor is willing to hold up the budget so that she can incarcerate her way out of a political problem.”

The tentative agreement comes as Hochul and lawmakers on Monday approved a three-day stopgap measure to ensure state workers are paid as negotiations continue.

It’s the third such budget extender passed by the Legislature over the past two weeks, but could be seen as a sign that talks are advancing since it didn’t boot the deadline a full week as was done earlier in the month.

The governor on Friday said she, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) were “making good progress” and working to “resolve all key sticking points” of her initial $227 billion budget blueprint.

Chief among the outstanding issues still being discussed is Hochul’s ambitious plan to address the Empire State’s housing shortage.

The governor’s housing compact focuses on transit-oriented development and sets production targets for all towns and cities in the state. The blueprint, which has been panned by suburban pols, would allow the state to step in and approve projects if a municipality fails to meet a target.

Stewart-Cousins said last week that while she agrees New York must address the current housing crisis, differences of opinion remain about how to approach the issue.

“It’s a difficult sell in many communities because there are a lot of elements that people may or may not want, or may not want it that way,” she said.

Tenant advocates and progressives are calling for increased protections for renters, as well as a voucher program for homeless and struggling New Yorkers to be included in the final budget.

Also on the table are a host of taxes and proposals to raise funds for the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transit Authority, including a Hochul-backed plan that would see the city on the hook for an additional $500 million a year.

The governor’s controversial call to expand the number of charter schools operating in the five boroughs has also faced intense pushback and a host of environmental initiatives meant to help New York achieve its ambitious climate goals is still being discussed.