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State budget could be finalized by week’s end with talks stuck on cannabis, charter schools: Hochul

With the state budget now nearly a month late and on the heels of Governor Kathy Hochul and state legislative leaders extending its deadline a fifth time on Monday, the governor said Tuesday there could be a final deal on the plan as early as the end of this week.

“I do see a path to wrap up the budget, perhaps as early as the end of this week,” Hochul told reporters during a question and answer session in the state Capitol Tuesday afternoon.

Although budget negotiations have extended far past the spending plan’s April 1 deadline, Hochul said she, state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie — who’ve negotiated entirely behind closed doors — have developed a “really positive relationship.”

“We’re still fairly new working together,” the governor said. “I’ve been on the job just a little over a year and a half. But there’s a lot of respect. And there’s a healthy respect, which leads to honest conversations. And that’s why I feel confident that we’ll end up with a budget that really meets the needs of all New Yorkers.”

Governor Kathy Hochul.Mike Groll/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

Although Hochul and legislative leaders have reportedly resolved two of the biggest budget sticking points — bail reform rollbacks and housing — she said there are still two big items holding up a final deal on the spending plan. They include cracking down on stores illegally selling cannabis products without a license and raising the cap on the number of new charter schools allowed to open in New York City.

The governor said she’s hoping to use the budget process to pass measures aimed at further regulating unlicensed pot shops she proposed in a bill last month. That legislation includes proposals to give the state Office of Cannabis Management expanded authority to seize unlicensed products and for the government to shutdown illegal weed sellers. Additionally, it would raise fines for selling illegal cannabis products to as high as $200,000.

Hochul argues increased enforcement is necessary to stop illicit sellers from undermining the state’s burgeoning legal market.

“We are trying so hard to stand up a legal industry, this is not easy to do,” Hochul said. “But when you set up these businesses to fail already, because of illegal competition, we have to take some dramatic steps now. And give the enforcement tools to the proper agencies … to go in, do searches, so you can identify whether there’s illegal contraband there. And then to take steps to shut them down, or to have fines and to get them on the path to legal activity.”

In his own media availability on Monday, Heastie said he’s also interested in seeing stepped up regulation against unlicensed sellers.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie in 2019.NYS Assembly

When it comes to charter schools, Hochul had originally proposed in her $227 billion executive budget, released at the start of February, allowing 85 new charter schools in New York City by removing the local cap of 275, all of which are currently in use. The governor also called for reissuing roughly 20 charters from schools who’ve either shut down or had their charters revoked — known as “zombie charters.”

According to a Monday report from the New York Post, Hochul and legislative leaders have reached a tentative deal to reissue 22 zombie licenses, while not raising the overall cap in the city from 275. But, Hochul said, a final deal depends on where the new charters would be located, how they would be funded and other factors she didn’t name.

“I believe in public schools, but it’s hard for me to turn my back on 50,000 parents who put their names on wait lists, so their kids could have a different alternative,” Hochul said. “So that is the struggle that is going on right now. I’m trying hard to overcome the objections. But this is a very challenging issue because of the emotions on both sides of the debate.”

The governor did confirm that reissuing the zombie charters is the focal point of negotiations at this time.

Assembly Member Michael Benedetto, who chairs the lower chamber’s Education Committee and is an opponent of charter schools, told amNewYork Metro he isn’t pleased about the tentative agreement on zombie charters.

“It’s something I’m not happy with,” Benedetto said. “We were hoping to stop this, but it’s a battle we’ve lost and you go on. It’s part of doing a budget and making compromises and doing [what’s] best for New York state as a whole.”

The governor, however, refused to confirm reports of a deal between her and legislative leaders to give judges more discretion in setting bail by eliminating the “least restrictive means standard” for violent crimes, while still defining bail strictly as a way of bringing defendants back to court. She had already originally proposed nixing the strict definition of bail.

“That will be forthcoming as well,” the governor said. “I put forth a plan to deal with issues related to the least restrictive means standard. And we’ve been making progress that I’m pleased with on that front.”

“But nothing’s really over till it’s over,” she added. “And that’s why it’s premature to announce the details now. But I’m satisfied with where we are today. But we still have a little bit of time to close all the deals down.”

The New York state Capitol is seen, Monday, March 13, 2023, in Albany, N.Y.AP Photo/Hans Pennink

Hochul’s other major budget priority — a plan to construct 800,000 new housing units statewide over the next decade by setting regional production mandates called the “New York Housing Compact” — has also reportedly died on the vine following fierce opposition from suburban areas against increased density in their jurisdictions. The governor acknowledged her plan was a big swing that would be hard to get over the finish line, but that it was important to start the conversation around boosting the state’s housing supply — repeating a famous quote from retired ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky to make her point.

“From fairly early on, the legislature showed they were not interested in the cornerstone, which was the New York [Housing] Compact, which is the part that was going to really make a difference,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s not waste any more time on this.’ I’m gonna go back. This is just the beginning of a journey in my opinion, this is going to be something I’m gonna continue to work on until we solve this. That’s my commitment to New Yorkers. And I feel a bit like Wayne Gretzky, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. I took the shot.”

Heastie, meanwhile, said on Monday that he believes Hochul’s plan and tenant protections that progressives were hoping to be included in the budget — like “Good Cause” eviction and a “Housing Access Voucher Program” — will be part of post-budget discussions.

“I think housing is something we’ll have to continue to talk about post-budget,” Heastie said.

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