How the Governor Upends Bills Before Signing Them

With chapter amendments, governors can make major changes to pending laws. Kathy Hochul uses them more than any executive before her.

Chris Bragg and Sam Mellins   ·   January 17, 2024
New York Governor Kathy Hochul sits at a large wooden table and signs papers in Albany, New York.
Governor Kathy Hochul extends her executive order declaring a state of emergency over migration on August 24, 2023. | Mike Groll / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

At the state Capitol, major bills are now negotiated in secret not once, but twice.

As the legislative session ends in June, the legislature hammers out hundreds of bills behind closed doors before rapidly voting on them. But at the end of the year, a second secretive, low-profile process takes place: chapter amendment negotiations, during which the governor extracts major policy concessions in exchange for their signature.

For years, the amendments’ primary use was to clean up minor technical flaws in bills that might carry unintended consequences. Then former Governor Andrew Cuomo ramped up the process, turning chapter amendments into a powerful executive tool.

Governor Kathy Hochul has taken it even further. New York Focus found that she has amended roughly one out of every seven bills sent to her — twice as many as her predecessor.

“It’s not like Albany was transparent to begin with, but this has pushed the process into the shadows even more,” said Judith Enck, who served as a top environmental advisor in the offices of Cuomo’s predecessors, Governors Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson. “Cuomo and Hochul have weaponized chapter amendments.”

Some of Hochul’s chapter amendments have undermined bills’ basic intent, said John Kaehny, executive director of the government reform group Reinvent Albany.

“It’s yet another way to make Albany less accountable to the public, as if they needed more, ” Kaehny said. “Hochul deserves credit for taking advantage of this in an even bigger way than Cuomo, who is master of the dark arts.”

In the closed-door process, bills the 213-member legislature passed in June are reshaped in December by a much smaller group of officials: legislative leaders, their staff, the bill’s sponsors, and the governor.

When they agree to a chapter amendment, the governor signs the bill, but issues an accompanying memo outlining agreed-to changes. The bill’s prime sponsors commit that during the next legislative session, the full Assembly and Senate will vote to pass new bills reflecting the changes.

Hochul’s high rate of chapter amendments may explain why she has vetoed a slightly smaller fraction of bills than her three most recent predecessors — about one in eight. A veto can be a sign that negotiations attempting to reach a chapter amendment have failed.

Offered a choice between a chapter amendment and a veto, lawmakers often take the amendment. They can tout the bill’s passage, even if the governor has greatly changed its substance. The resulting headline is the new law, not the fine print.

But for advocates, it can be a political momentum killer. If even part of a bill is signed into law, it’s difficult to gin up enthusiasm to later pass the excised elements.

Take the case of the Birds and Bees Protection Act. As originally passed, the bill would have prohibited the sale of certain pesticides or seeds coated with them. It was the first successful bill of its kind in the country.

Then the New York Farm Bureau, a major agricultural industry group, raised concerns, and Hochul’s office negotiated for a provision allowing farmers to apply for a waiver to fight “problems pests.”

“New York Farm Bureau greatly appreciates Governor Hochul’s leadership in offering thoughtful chapter amendments,” the group’s president, David Fisher, said of the compromise. “She sought input from all sides and reached consensus on a balanced approach.”

In a December 22 press release announcing the agreement, Hochul’s office included comments from a number of environmental groups that cheered the compromise. But to Enck, the result was concerning. Because of the law’s novelty, she said, a backroom compromise created a flawed model that may be adopted by other states.

The Hochul administration’s role is “always gut the bill, never to strengthen it,” said Enck, who now works as an environmental advocate seeking to eliminate pollution from plastic waste.

“It’s not like Albany was transparent to begin with, but this has pushed the process into the shadows even more.”

—Judith Enck, environmental advocate

A day later, Hochul struck another deal on another bill, the LLC Transparency Act. That bill had sought to unmask the owners of limited liability companies in New York. In Manhattan, high-end real estate owned by anonymous shell companies has served as a hub for money laundering.

An influential real estate lobbying group cited concerns that a key part of the bill — requiring that beneficial owners of LLCs be disclosed in a public database — could lead to identity theft. In closed-door chapter amendment negotiations, Hochul’s office successfully pushed for the public database to be removed from the bill. Information about LLC owners will now only be available to law enforcement and regulatory authorities.

Hochul wrote that a public database could create “unnecessary intrusions into personal privacy” in her memo justifying the amendment. But the legislature’s bill already allowed LLC owners with privacy concerns — such as whistleblowers and domestic violence victims — to seek a waiver from the state.

“The only people who benefit from this chapter amendment are people who do not have a significant privacy interest,” argued Gregory Krakower, who served as counsel to former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and now represents whistleblowers in lawsuits. “Anyone with a significant privacy interest would have been granted a waiver.”

Hochul had taken the “heart” out of the bill, Reinvent Albany, one of its major supporters, said in a statement. The group “would have preferred to see the bill vetoed to make it clear to the public what happened here.”

Manhattan state Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, a lead sponsor of both the bills, said the surviving portions of the laws will bring serious public benefits.

A “chapter amendment is preferable to a veto, to the extent that you advance the issue,” he said. “And if you don’t get everything you want, you can revisit it at a future date.”

Chapter amendments can be useful to the governor even when a bill does get vetoed. By simply offering an amendment, Hochul can later argue it’s the legislature, not her, that unreasonably failed to compromise.

Over the past year, Hochul’s office has twice proposed sweeping late-year amendments to an emotionally charged bill, the Grieving Families Act, then declined to negotiate further. The legislature balked, and both times, Hochul issued vetoes and blamed the legislature.

“The take it or leave it approach, to me, suggests that they’re not favoring any reforms at this point,” said Hoylman-Sigal, who also sponsored the Grieving Families Act.

Hochul argued that if lawmakers had collaborated more during the legislative session — before the bill passed — they might have struck a deal.

Hochul also believes her administration doesn’t get enough credit for the spate of compromises it has reached. The chapter amendments are a byproduct of the respectful attitude Hochul takes towards working with the legislature, she said in early January — a “sea change from the past.”

Hochul’s relationship with the legislature is less contentious than her predecessor’s was. Still, according to spokesperson Rich Azzopardi, Cuomo’s administration began making greater use of chapter amendments because it “saw an opportunity to get to ‘yes’ on various issues.”

“It’s sometimes easier to hammer out an agreement, rather than just ignore the issue and have the same bills passed every year, and vetoed every year,” Azzopardi said.

In 2019, Cuomo accelerated his use of chapter amendments. That coincided with Democrats taking full control of the state Senate — giving them all the levers of power in Albany.

Republicans had ruled the Senate for most of the past 50 years, serving as a backstop for legislation that business interests deemed problematic. Without the Republican Senate, those interest groups have looked to the executive.

Hochul’s office has asked the legislature to send her sensitive bills in December, enabling her to seek major amendments or issue vetoes while New Yorkers are distracted by the holidays. That may lessen the political price of vetoing popular legislation.

It’s to the governor’s advantage to “run out the clock — to negotiate bills late in the year and to avoid public and press scrutiny during that process, especially between Christmas and New Year’s,” Hoylman-Sigal said.

“Most of my colleagues are under the impression that if your bill hasn’t been negotiated by Christmas, then it’s probably DOA,” or dead on arrival, he said.

Technically, Hochul doesn’t have the legal authority to dictate a bill’s delivery time — the legislature does. In longstanding Albany practice, however, bills are generally “called up” to the governor’s office at their request.

“Hochul deserves credit for taking advantage of this in an even bigger way than Cuomo, who is master of the dark arts.”

—John Kaehny, Reinvent Albany

Hochul doesn’t have the unilateral power to issue decisive vetoes, either: Democrats have had veto-proof majorities for the past three legislative sessions. So far, they’ve never used those numbers to override a veto.

According to former Manhattan Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, who served in the chamber for 52 years, the move has never been popular.

“It is the nuclear option,” Gottfried said of a veto override. “And one thing that I’ve always been very aware of is that, whoever is governor, they’ve got bigger bombs than we in the legislature do.”

But as legislators grow frustrated with the glut of late-year chapter amendments and vetoes, they’ve discussed exerting more control. They could start delivering more sensitive bills earlier in the calendar.

“I think members are concerned that their bills don’t get any scrutiny by the executive until the waning days of the year, and then everything is lumped together,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “And if we had more time, and there was more attention to bills, then it might be a smoother process.”

Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, suggested that passing bills and sending them to the governor earlier in the legislative session would put the legislature at a comparative advantage.

In the case of the Grieving Families Act, “if the legislative leaders wanted to create a situation where they had more leverage, they would have passed it in January or February, and then sent it to the governor’s office,” Horner said. “Then the 10-day clock would start ticking and they would be in a position to do a veto override if they wanted to” during the same session.

For her part, Hochul has said she would like to see more negotiation before the legislature passes bills.

“We can be really, really productive if we work together during the session, not have 500 bills passed in a week or just over a week,” she said in early January. “And then at that point, there’s no opportunity for negotiation or conversation or understanding.”

That could relieve the year-end pressure. But Hoylman-Sigal said that in his experience, there has been “very little” discussion between the legislature and Hochul’s office about bills during the legislative session.

Gottfried described it as a time management issue: The legislature considers thousands of bills, many of which never make it to the governor’s desk.

“The governor’s staff could spend their whole life negotiating bills, when it turns out they’re not going anywhere, anyway,” he said.

Colin Kinniburgh contributed reporting.

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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