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Sen. Skoufis previews 2022 New York state legislative session

Senator James Skoufis
Photo provided by Senate Media
Sen. James Skoufis

We’ve been speaking with a variety of New York state lawmakers about their expectations for the 2022 session, which starts this week. It marks the first under Governor Kathy Hochul, and comes with November’s election on the horizon. Democratic Senator James Skoufis is in his second term representing the 39th district.

Our top priority needs to be getting out of the pandemic. And alongside that, making sure that we're focused on rebuilding the economy, making sure that we're focused on jobs, but none of that can happen if we're in a surge. And that's where we are right now. And so we need to get more testing. And I've been very vocal with some of my Hudson Valley colleagues that we need a state mass testing site back up and running here in our region, we don't have one right now. And so that needs to be the immediate focus.

Going into next year, January through June, the surge is not going to last through June. What we have to be focused on as Democratic majorities are, in my opinion, are kitchen table issues. And we've got a DOT capital program we're going to be negotiating, let's make sure we put the federal infrastructure money and state money overlaid on top of that to best use, we've got to make sure that we've got strong schools, continue phasing in the CFE, we've got to make sure we've got strong hospitals, we've got to repave our roads, we've got to, as I said before, get people back to work. These are the issues that my constituents care about, that I think most New Yorkers care about, and we can't lose sight of these core essential kitchen table issues heading into 2022.

Governor Hochul has said that her priority is keeping kids in schools. It seems as if your concern over the state of testing in the Hudson Valley might be complicating those efforts. Do you think that she can pull off her goal of not seeing a return to remote classes as students head back to school this week?

Well, I share that same goal. And look, you know what happened in 2020, it is what it is. And in many cases it needed to happen. But so much learning was lost via Zoom with kids out of the classroom that I think we all need to be doing our best to make sure that does not happen again under any circumstance. But yes, you know, testing is key in order to identify where the virus is spreading, where we need to take additional actions. Perhaps we need to first understand you know, that there's a severe lack of testing in some parts of the state. I working with Senator Reichlin-Melnick and Assemblyman Zabrowski we've had a number of conversations with the chamber, the executive branch, over the past week trying to push them to reopen a site in orange or Rockland counties west of Hudson. And I think we're making progress to their credit the chamber they I think, understand that there is this void, but there's no question about it. That not having proper testing has severe repercussions beyond just a simple matter of how many people tested positive and certainly one of those repercussions is it makes it more challenging to deal with all the issues related to keeping kids in classrooms.

Are people in your district abiding by the recommendations for wearing masks indoors and then of course the increased focus on trying to get that last stubborn portion of the population vaccinated and boosted?

It's hit or miss you know, you walk into I some retail outlets, for example, I was at Woodbury Common doing some holiday shopping the other day and just about everybody was masked….

How was the traffic by the way?

Around Woodbury Common? It's much better than it was before the $150 million infrastructure project was completed a couple of years ago. But there's always going to be traffic around the mall during peak holiday season. So it was bad. But everyone's masked, you go to some local grocery stores. And, you know, it's maybe 50% of people are masked. And so in a lot of that isn't fortunately, whether the establishment is enforcing because, you know, as we've seen, once you leave New York City, the county governments seem to be reticent, at best to be enforcing these mask mandates. And so it's up to the local establishment and some of them are interested in some of them are very uninterested. So it is hit or miss and with vaccines, look, you know, the simple matter of fact is there's a segment, a small segment of the population, that believes vaccines, you know, do things to them that, quite frankly, they don't do to people.

And, you know, there's hesitancy, there's fear, there's conspiracy laden thinking, and at a certain point, you know, I don't know how you reach some of these folks, we did see down in New York City, especially that some of the mandates for the public sector, cops, firefighters, etc, they worked in terms of, you know, getting folks to get the vaccine and not lose their job. When faced with the prospect of losing their job, it turns out some, like, 95% of the unvaccinated wound up choosing to get the vaccine instead of losing their job. And so, you know, I think there are more things that we could do on the public policy side. But right now, there is a persistent, small, unvaccinated group of people who are making it very difficult for us to get through this pandemic.

Aside from the testing issue, which you've raised, how do you think Gov. Hochul is handling the pandemic the few months that she's been in office?

I think she's handled it very well. There are a lot of moving parts, right, there are federal things that need to be done. Certainly there are state level policies and actions that have to be put in place in order to safeguard against, you know, a surge like this, there's local law enforcement that, you know, it would be helpful to have. So not everything is within Kathy Hochul’s control. But I think the areas that have been within her control, she's responded in a transparent manner. I think she's doing her best, and her administration are doing their best, despite difficult circumstances, but more needs to be done. And, you know, we talked about some challenges here in the Hudson Valley, we need to ramp up more quickly. We need to respond more effectively, but I think she's done an exemplary job with the cards that she was dealt.

Speaking of the executive branch, the investigations committee that you chair just the other day released a new study looking into how the executive branch carries out mandated state studies, and it found that's severely lacking. Can you break that down for me?

Yeah, sure thing. I think a lot of my colleagues and I, we suspected, we pass all of these “ study bills,” we direct agencies to evaluate issues that we feel are important. And we never hear about these studies after we pass these bills. And so I think a lot of us suspected that many of them are just not happening. They're ignoring our legislative directives, or if they are being studied, these issues are being studied, certainly, they're not communicating the results to us, because we never hear what happens after we vote on these bills. The Investigations Committee, we took it upon ourselves to really inquire on this issue. And so we looked at bills that were passed these types of study bills between 2016 and 2018. And found a full 41% of these mandates were ignored. The Department of Health was a particularly egregious offender, the large majority of the studies that they were required to undertake were ignored, and I won't mince words here, they broke the law. The fact is, when we pass a bill, it's signed into law, they are required to do these studies, it is not optional. And so we found that almost half of studies that we directed agencies to undertake were ignored. And the other half, a little bit more than half, they're not posted on websites and not really effectively communicated back to the legislature. And so, you know, we put forward a number of recommendations that we feel would be better practices, best practices moving forward. And, you know, the report concludes that the legislature ought to take action against these agencies, there ought to be repercussions, consequences when they ignore the law, when they ignore legislative will. And I believe, you know, one action that should be taken, moving forward when we have flagrant offenders, like Department of Health over the last couple of years, is we should sue. They're ignoring the law. They're violating the law, and let's have a court compel them to follow the law if need be.

Well, there are so many different state agencies in different buildings in different departments. So was this a policy? Because it seems like you found more than just a couple of, you know, bad apples here, it seems like, by and large, maybe ignoring some of these directives was just kind of part of the plan.

So I do think it stems from the culture of the previous administration. I and you know, it's not a secret that the previous administration that formal registration, they did not hold the legislature in very high regard. And I believe, you know, these executive branch agencies reflected that culture, where there's just simply OK, the legislature wants to do something, and maybe we get around to it. You know, we'll that study that, you know, they just passed the bill about. And, you know, I am hopeful. I do believe that the current administration, Governor Hochul and her team, they're instilling a very different culture within the chamber, within the executive branch agencies. And so I am hopeful that there will be a new day, not just on these study bills, but you know, on all engagement in between the legislature and the executive branch and make no mistake over the past few months she's been in office, there have been marked improvements to that end.

Let me go to a couple of other areas. I want to circle back to discussion about the DOT capital plan that you mentioned earlier. It seems like kind of a good year to be working on that, given the historic federal investments in infrastructure. How will state and federal funding be put to use together?

So the past two years, we have basically done these little one year extensions for a DOT capital plan, when historically they've been five-year DOT capital program, five years of investments looking outward. And so I am hopeful. I expect there to be a five year or at least a far more robust than a one year DOT plan that's negotiated over the next few months as part of the budget. And yes, it should be a very healthy capital program, because not only are we looking at an infusion from the federal government when it comes to infrastructure dollars, but we have a very healthy budget, you know, in terms of sales, tax receipts, and income tax receipts. And so, you know, my hope is that, as part of this focus on, as I started the interview with you about on kitchen table issues, infrastructure, rebuilding our roads and bridges, getting people back to work, you know, the DOT capital program touches on a lot of those elements. And so I am going to be very supportive as a very robust plan. As a state senator, we're going to be looking out for projects in my district as we negotiate.

You have a bill for the next session that would require students across the state to be tested for dyslexia. Why and how would that work?

Well, the why is certainly apparent to any family that has a dyslexic child. And that is, you know, this is, this is something that often goes undetected until the student is much further along with their education, you know, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, even high school. And this it's something that requires a more specialized and more tailored type of learning experience. And so to detect it when you are in kindergarten, or first grade is certainly good for that student and good for that family. But it's also good for the school district who doesn't have to then play try and play catch up and make up for so much last time. And so you know, it’s certainly, I think, the right the moral thing, the ethical thing to do to help these students, but it's also the financially prudent thing to do. Because once you're trying to play catch up, it's a lot more expensive on the back end, as well. And so, you know, for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children who have some form of dyslexia in New York state, now, this kind of bill, working with Assemblyman Carroll would be a game changer.

Talking to a lot of your colleagues over the past couple of weeks, I sense that there's a little more optimism heading into the new year than there has been in past years, and throw 2020 out. That was very unusual. But the state is more flush given the federal COVID relief funds and infrastructure investment. There's not a recession that we know of right now. We're sort of coming out of that. So do you expect things to operate any differently? Will the budget talks be more smooth than they have been in past years this session?

I think they will, certainly for some of the reasons that you just outlined, although I would just point out that much of that money, the COVID relief money, infrastructure money, that's not recurring. And that's not something that's going to be with us every single year that we can count on. A lot of that money is one shot money, and that's why a lot of that money needs to be on spent on one shot expenses, like a DOT capital program, for instance. But yes, you know, I expect a healthier budget negotiation, in part because of the influx of cash that we have. I also expect a much smoother budget process because we have a normal person in the governor’s office now, who is just not looking to take a sledgehammer to the legislature every chance that they get. And so, you know, the governor has demonstrated, that she is very interested in collaboration. I've witnessed that as her team and I have negotiated over many, many chapter amendments with my bills over the past number of weeks. And so I am hopeful, I think, you know, many of my colleagues and I are optimistic that it's going to be a new day in Albany and a new, certainly a new and refreshing type of budget negotiation, given that we've got Kathy Hochul in the governor's office.

I wonder if that can last, though. And the reason I ask is, the governor and the legislative leaders are sort of by definition in an oppositional role in terms of the budget, and I mean, that dates back t Pataki, V. Silver and governors ever since then have gone to war with the legislature at one time or another when it came down to budget time. And Kathy Hochul came in in August, so she hasn't had to deal with the lawmakers as much as she will going into the new year. Are you hopeful that will last?

I am for a couple of reasons. First, I unlike most previous governors, she actually comes from other layers of government here, you know, Andrew Cuomo he ran HUD, then he ran for attorney general and became governor. He was never a legislator. He was never in local government. Kathy Hochul was. You know, she was on a town board. She was a county clerk. She was in Congress as a legislator. And so I think that she I think she views the role of the legislature in a very different and more positive manner than most of her predecessors. But certainly, there will be disagreement. That is human nature, even as we're all Democrats here. And the Democratic conference in the Senate, there's a wide range of opinions. But the point here is, though, that you could disagree without being disagreeable. And I do believe one of the reasons why I'm hopeful that this can last is because Kathy Hochul’s style, it seems, is to not be disagreeable, or perhaps only as a last resort. You know, I am hopeful that this can last. But certainly time will tell. We'll see.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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