EDITORIAL: Incoming governor has a tough road ahead

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While Andrew Cuomo spent Friday packing up U-Haul trucks at the Executive Mansion and siccing his legal and communications teams on the attorney general and his sexual harassment victims, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul was on Twitter noting the surge in COVID ICU hospitalizations, urging New Yorkers to get vaccinated, welcoming Afghan refugees and promoting the state fair.

On Tuesday, the shadow of our scandal-plagued outgoing governor will move away, and we’ll have a new governor.

For New Yorkers, it’s a new day, open to new opportunities to sweep away the scandals and the negativity, and to replace them with a fresh voice and fresh faces.

But for Hochul herself, her days of barnstorming the state promoting diners and agriculture and handing out grants will immediately be dominated by the problems Cuomo left behind and those that have plagued the state for years.

Running New York in these times won’t be an easy task, even for someone with Hochul’s wide experience in state, local and federal government, and even for someone possessing her energy, bright personality and desire to reach out rather than punch down.

Right out of the gate, she will have to address the COVID crisis, particularly the controversy in schools and the business community over the wearing of masks and the status of vaccinations for staff and students.

Will she have the same authority Cuomo had to mandate protocols, or will she have to impose her directives by persuasion? How far will she go in her attempts to stop the next wave of the virus, such as mandating vaccines for travel and participation in indoor activities? Will the public cut her some slack while she seeks an acceptable path, or will they rebel if they feel she’s going too far too fast?

Cuomo managed the crisis like a dictator. Hochul has vowed to tap the minds of health and science experts. But she won’t have much time to gather information and make policy, as the health crisis is escalating quickly.

How well New York fares in the next few months with the virus — particularly when it comes to schools, nursing homes and medical facilities — will have a major impact on how much of Hochul’s other agenda items she can push through.

As if assuming authority during a pandemic isn’t enough, Hochul is inheriting a bungled distribution of billions of dollars in rent relief aid. And she will have to address the cause of landlords anxious to collect rent and get rid of delinquent tenants, while balancing the hardships of tenants struggling to pay their bills in the wake of the COVID economy.

The state’s eviction moratorium expires at the end of the month, and the federal extension to October is legally flimsy.

Will she call the Legislature back to extend the state moratorium and amend the existing law, and what form will those changes take? It’s going to be difficult to make everyone happy in this situation. She’ll have to find a way.

Even as her predecessor moves out of government housing, Hochul will have to address the ethical issues he left behind, including the state ethics commission, JCOPE, which was effectively neutered during Cuomo’s 11 years in office.

Some watchdog groups suggest that not only will Hochul have to overhaul JCOPE, but that she should create an independent inspector general’s office that is not beholden to the governor and that is shielded from retaliation.

She also will face challenges to improve labor conditions, especially for women — another problem gifted to her from Cuomo. Being a woman herself won’t alone be enough to restore trust and fairness. She’ll need to enforce existing regulations and laws, and make it harder for supervisors and others to get away with workplace harassment, as Cuomo did for so long.

Then there’s state finances. She will have to manage the state’s record $212 billion budget, and set priorities for spending and taxes for the next year.

While New York’s population grew by 4.2% over the past decade, the state still has a reputation for its citizens leaving New York for better services, lower taxes and warmer weather. Hochul can’t hide behind the census numbers; she will have to address the factors that compel people to abandon the Empire State for greener pastures.

One issue many upstate residents fail to pay attention to is New York City, particularly its transportation issues.

Hochul will have significant control over the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and that means she will be tasked with addressing its financial and structural problems. With ridership down by half since the pandemic started and the authority bleeding money, how will she ensure that the city’s vital subways, buses and trains adequately serve almost half the state’s population effectively? That alone could use up a significant amount of her time, effort and political capital.

Last week, we editorialized that she should make transparency a priority. Being transparent will help Hochul lift Cuomo’s stain of secrecy and begin to restore trust in government, specifically in the governor’s office.

She should start by releasing accurate numbers for nursing home deaths related to the virus — the numbers Cuomo’s administration tried so hard to hide and manipulate.

The schedule for her first day, issued Saturday, lists four events, all but one of which is closed to the press, and that one offers only limited availability. Not a good start.

How the new governor reacts to all these circumstances, how she sets her priorities and how state residents react to them in the next 16 months will be crucial to her success and will determine whether voters want her to run for a full term next November.

After all this state has been through, we need a governor who is competent, compassionate, ethical and effective.

Welcome, Gov. Hochul. Now let’s see what you’ve got.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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