Governor Kathy Hochul, like her disgraced predecessor, has chosen to use the state budget to ram through last-minute policy changes that will have profound consequences for years to come. Over the objections of progressive Democrats, she has sought to weaken criminal justice reforms passed in 2019 and increase the use of cash bail. She has tried — and likely failed — to immediately extend a large tax break for real estate developers.
And she has now succeeded in getting a billion-dollar taxpayer subsidy for the billionaire owners of the Buffalo Bills.
The deal for a new stadium in Buffalo represents the largest taxpayer giveaway for a football stadium in American history. Hochul, a Buffalo-area native, announced the agreement with the Pegula family recently and touted it as a victory for New York and a way to keep a beloved football team from moving elsewhere. The Bills are central to Buffalo’s identity but do not offer much in the way of an economic boost for the city — at least for its vast working-class and poor population. Buffalo is one of the very poorest cities in America, with or without the Bills.
What has allowed Hochul to get her way is that the stadium deal was baked into the state budget, which was passed on Thursday. It’s far easier to get unpopular or controversial policy items passed in omnibus bills, and Hochul’s inner circle understands such taxpayer largesse for a sports stadium could fail a standalone vote. Enough Democrats beyond Erie County are opposed already, and the deal polls poorly.
A proud centrist Democrat, Hochul rejects socialism, but she celebrates state subsidies for the rich and powerful. The Pegulas can pay for their own stadium, as can the NFL, the most profitable sports league in America. Not even a cent of taxpayer money should be spent on the Bills.
But Hochul feels the pull of power and probably believes keeping the Bills is central to her reelection prospects. So far, progressives have failed to apply adequate pressure on her during the primary campaign, with the Working Families Party–backed Jumaane Williams polling a distant second. Hochul has not mentioned Williams in public, preferring to focus on a general election matchup with a Republican, likely Donald Trump–loving Congressman Lee Zeldin.
Unfortunately, it speaks to some of the weaknesses of the institutional left that Hochul feels so emboldened. Beyond budget season, it will be harder for her to push around progressives and socialists in the legislature, but she clearly does not fear any political opposition over her billion-dollar handout to the Pegulas. Williams hasn’t raised enough money yet to make him viable in a primary where Hochul has already banked more than $20 million.
Andrew Cuomo presented significant challenges for the Left because he was so vindictive and sociopathic. He was willing to make policy fights personal, punishing millions of people because he didn’t like a particular politician. Hochul is not that, and never will be — but she is emerging, quickly, as a force to be reckoned with in Albany. Her outward geniality masks a politics that is not so different from what was witnessed for the last decade. Challenging it will not be so simple.