Governor Hochul started previewing this week aspects of her “State of the State” speech before a joint session of the Legislature scheduled for next Tuesday.
It’s a century-old tradition with vestiges of the British monarchy—that the framers of New York’s constitution thought they eliminated over 200 years ago.
New York’s constitutional framers explicitly rejected the governor making an in-person address to the Legislature—a custom akin to a speech from the throne by the monarch—and put a provision in New York’s 1821 Constitution to have the governor provide only a written message.
Governor Alfred E. Smith started the modern practice in 1923. A New York Times report conveyed that in a “distinct innovation” Smith would read his message to the Legislature in-person, abandoning the “time-honored tradition of delivering his annual message to the Legislature in writing.” But Smith’s predecessors were not following tradition—they were following the Constitution. It has mandated for over 200 years that the governor present the annual message in writing.
New Yorkers adopted new wording in the 1821 Constitution. It provided that the governor “shall communicate by message to the legislature at every session, the condition of the state; and recommend such matters to them as he shall judge expedient.” Only some pronouns and punctuation have changed in the 200 years since. The 1777 Constitution made it the governor’s duty to “inform” the Legislature of the condition of the state that was changed in the 1821 Constitution to “communicate by message.”
To be sure, in its modern usage the word “message” can mean something other than written words. Callers leave voicemail messages. Television programs return after messages from sponsors. And the sermon or homily may be called the message in some contemporary churches.
Yet Delegate Livingston to the 1821 Constitutional Convention, who proposed the provision, made clear—and the other delegates understood—what “message” meant. He suggested the wording “so as to make it the duty of the governor to address the legislature by message instead of speech.” Further, he sought to dispose of “a relic of monarchy, founded in the love of pomp, and splendour and show.”
Livingston proposed New Yorkers make part of their Constitution a practice started at the federal level by Thomas Jefferson two decades earlier. Jefferson sent the Speaker of the House a written message relaying the state of the union. Jefferson explained his reasoning in a cover letter accompanying it and distinguished a written message from a personal address to Congress.
“The circumstances under which we find ourselves at this place rendering inconvenient the mode heretofore practised, of making, by personal Address, the first communications, between the legislative and Executive branches, I have adopted that by Message …”
Jefferson could change course because the federal constitution is ambiguous. Under Section 3 of Article 2 of the United States Constitution the President “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Presidents George Washington and John Adams understood “give…information” to mean by personal address.
New York governors do not have that flexibility.
Jefferson sought to accommodate the convenience of the legislature and the economy of their time, and to not put them on the spot to answer his proposals. His reasons were consistent with a president of a republic not wanting to impose on Congress the way a monarch might. Livingston had similar concerns in 1821, citing 11 days of debate that followed the governor’s speech in 1814, along with his goal of eliminating a relic of the monarchy. To be sure, Livingston’s lengthy debate-time concerns do not carry as much weight in the 21st century where the Legislature routinely passes budget bills containing major policy proscriptions like bail reform in the wee hours of the night.
To his credit, Smith read an annual message that ran only 35 pages and addressed 30 topics, which was consistent with the length and content of annual messages of his predecessors. He addressed first the state’s finances and then prioritized reducing executive departments (and consolidating administrative functions) and urged implementing an executive budget system to control the Legislature’s profligate spending.
Today, the State of the State is a multi-day process. Multiple press releases and public appearances precede and follow a speech presenting highlights of the governor’s written policy proposals. In 2023, Hochul proposed 147 initiatives in a 277-page State of the State Book. She did, however, save the state from some of the pomp and splendor of her predecessor by giving her address in the legislative chamber.
There’s nothing to stop the Legislature from inviting Hochul to read her written message in person. Editing the annual message down to a size that Hochul can read in one address could provide a more focused look first at the state’s financial condition and then at limited policy recommendations that address that condition.