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Assemblyman John McDonald on the late budget, Gov. Hochul's negotiations, to-go cocktails and the gas tax

John McDonald
Jesse King
John McDonald

New York State has a new $220 billion budget, approved over the weekend largely while most residents were sleeping. Governor Kathy Hochul’s first spending plan came together a week past the deadline, after she and Democratic legislative leaders reached agreement on a slew of issues – including bail reform tweaks, funding for a new Buffalo Bills stadium, downstate casinos, and to-go cocktails.

For reaction, WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with Cohoes Democratic State Assemblyman John McDonald of the 108th district:

I guess in a short phrase, it's a budget that works for all New Yorkers, no matter where you come from, no matter what your views are, the reality is, thanks to an economy that's recovering, thanks to the federal government support, we were in a unique position this year to actually strategically invest in people throughout New York state. And so there's gonna be a lot of things rolling out over the next several months that people will start to see some benefit from and in a way, it's good. It's a unique situation we've never had. I've never had this in the 10 years I've been in the assembly.

Given the fact that the final budget number came in higher than the governor's original proposal, how come it took so long to get a deal? I mean, it came in just about a week late.

You know, traditionally, for the 10 budgets I've been involved with, the fight was over what the cuts are going to be. And that was actually quick decisions that were made. Because of the budget surpluses, we actually were in a position to do things we normally wouldn't be doing. And therefore, everyone's expectations were high. So there was a lot of arguing over what the priorities would be. And at the same token, there were some policy items introduced in the remaining weeks to the budget, that required a lot of conversation. And you know, particularly regards to bail, and discovery, which really did take a lot of time. But I think we made some improvements in that area.

So you're satisfied with the compromise changes that were reached over repeat offenders and bail discretion?

Yeah, I'm very comfortable with what we've arrived at. The truth of the matter is, depending on what your views are in the criminal justice system, there are people who wanted it all rolled back, which I don't agree with. There are people didn't want to make any changes to the law. I don't agree with that. I do believe the changes we've made will make an improvement on the system.

However, like anything else, the criminal justice system is a very challenging situation. You're dealing with managing human behavior when it's out of control, and it can be challenging at times. And we need to be mindful of the fact that this may not be perfect, but it's a step in the right direction, and that we will continually be vigilant where we need to make improvements.

What about the late stage announcement of the deal for the new Buffalo Bills stadium, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in state money. That was a hang-up, it seems, between lawmakers and the governor. Where were you on that one?

So interesting enough, people use the expression late stage. Actually, you know, traditionally, items like that would show up at 4 o'clock in the morning the day we’re voting on a budget. So being two weeks ahead of time wasn't really that late stage. We all knew something was coming our way, right, that this has been going on for several months. It's a significant amount of money, not debating that whatsoever. To be very clear, in Buffalo, the sun rises and it sets with the Buffalo Bills. It's a significant investment. It's a lot of money. At the same token, we're seeing significant investments here in the Capital Region.

For several years now Pat Fahy, Neil Breslin, Michelle Hinchey and myself have been advocating for funding for a public option for engineering at SUNY Albany. And we were able to secure $75 million for SUNY Albany to not only finish the engineering school, but also to incorporate artificial intelligence into the operation. So you know, these are times where we do have surpluses, we can make some strategic one-time investments, and each region has its own priorities. In the Capital Region, we don't we don't have the Bills. We don't have the Mets or the Yankees. We've got government, and we've got education. And that's what we're investing in.

If you were to give Governor Hochul a grade for this budget process, what would it be? How did she do getting it through the first time?

I think she did good. I definitely give her a B+, might even get an A-. You know, getting an A+ is never going to happen in this process. To her credit, there wasn't a lot of drama. It was pretty straightforward. Yes, I think the media was a little bit frustrated because they felt a lot of it was negotiated behind closed doors.

I think that’s true.

Yeah. And the reality is, is that what goes on behind closed doors in the Assembly, and I'm assuming the Senate, is that the members lay out their priorities, they lay out what they can support what they can't. And Speaker Heastie, one good thing about him, he's got a mathematics degree, he knows how to count. So he can represent the conference because there's no way anybody should be subjected to 107 members, the governor could never negotiate with just the members of the Assembly, let alone Senate. So you have to work with the leaders. And, you know, it's a lot of starting the car, turning it off, starting it on, turning it off, because there's just a lot of different interests, New York State's extraordinarily diverse, lot of different interests, and it's not easy by any stretch of the imagination. So those kinds of conversations have to go on and it got done.

Governor Hochul’s primary opponent, Tom Suozzi, and the Republicans in the state legislature were very critical of the fact that with one- party rule in the Assembly, Senate and governor's mansion,  the budget was as late as it was. What would you say to that criticism?

Well, first of all, is it late, is it behind by a week? Sure it is. But you know what, government kept operating, no one missed a paycheck. And once again, we had some complex items to discuss. I was watching some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle’s comments, and I thought it was interesting, you know, ‘They've got all this money, and they don't know how to spend it. But they're spending like drunken sailors.’ Now, that's just a very odd comment, because we weren't spending like drunken sailors because we hadn’t approved the budget. So you know, listen, I get it, I understand that they have to get their talking points out there. At the end of the day, no matter where you stand politically, all New Yorkers benefit from this budget. And they benefit significantly, just on the property tax rebate alone, it's projected for upstate New York to be up near $900. That's real meaningful money to any property owner whose, you know, household income is lower than $250,000 a year. And at the same token, the earned income tax credit, something that my colleague, Pat Fahy, has been championing for years, we were able to include components of what she's been pushing for to really help hard working, lower income New Yorkers receive an additional credit for something they earned, and get it on a much more expedited purpose, because the reality is, we are struggling. We know that inflation is high, gas is high, fuel costs are high, we need to get money into the pockets of these households as quickly as possible.

A couple of other highlights that have gotten a lot of attention. One is the suspension of the state gas tax for several months, the other was the to go cocktail discussion that ramped back up after the pandemic year. What about those two items? What do you think?

The gas tax will basically equate to a 16 cent reduction per gallon effective June 1 to the end of the year. This is helpful to the average person and particularly as we're heading into the high travel season, which as you know, New York State does rely on tourism as our economy. So this was a smart decision. But it doesn't come at the sacrifice of roads and bridges. The state is transferring money into make sure that those projects still continue on. At the same token, it does provide an option for counties to do the same. Because what most people don't realize that the average amount of taxes per gallon of gas is at about 48 cents. The state stops at $2 per gallon, we have a ceiling, but the counties don't. So now it gives the counties the option that if they want to follow through at the local to provide even more relief to taxpayers, they can do it. But they're not required to do that. And that's an individual county decision. So I think that is smart, particularly as we're heading into the travel season. And it's helpful, it helps people's impressions, right? They want to know is government doing anything for me because I'm struggling. And I think this is something that is a step in the right direction.

Alcohol to go, as you know, widely popular and actually critically necessary during the pandemic. And it's something that can be done responsibly and you know, I pushed this along with Carrie Woerner and Pat Fahy here in the Capital Region. It makes sense. I'm not much of a drinker but every once a while you want to have a professionally made cocktail. And I'm not going to run out to the liquor store and buy all the ingredients to do that because I still don't know how to make it you know, you can have the ingredients. It's actually the talent of doing it. Now you have your favorite restaurant where you might like a, I don't know, margarita, whatever it may be, tells you how much I don't drink. Say it’s a margarita, you want a margarita done right, and you want it done right with the right flavors, you can order it, it comes in a plastic sealed container, provided you order something substantial to eat. And away you go. And you can go home, enjoy your meal, enjoy your drink, and more importantly, stay off the roads.

It's the second week, full week of April. Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session in Albany until early June. Is there anything that didn't get done in this big budget bill that you have as a priority for the next six, seven weeks?

I have a variety of healthcare related and health insurance related bills to help streamline the prior approval process so that patients aren't being held up from procedures and medications, focusing on those types of situations, those type of bills personally, is because I see it in my real life. I see the frustration that prescribers, patients and even the plans have. So we're going to try to help streamline that process in many aspects.

There was a bill that that was actually a priority of the governor's and prior to the Assembly’s that did not see the light of day, which was clean slate, that I am assuming is going to come back quickly. But the reality is we come back to session April 25. And we're done June 2. So there's not a lot of time. And, you know, as we talked about earlier, for the last three or four weeks, we've been getting memos together to make sure that we can start moving bills. Another one that's a priority for me is to allow for our EMTs to be able to administer influenza and COVID vaccines. That privilege is only extended now because of the federal government's efforts. But that's going to expire in June or July, we're going to be coming into another influenza season before you know it. We're just leaving one and coming on another. It looks like COVID vaccines are going to be part of our health care continuum going forward. And I want to be able to enable our EMTs out in the communities who are properly trained to be able to administer and actually take a more progressive approach in regards to being part of the health care continuum. Far too often many people have challenges to accessing the system. And meanwhile, I know as a former mayor, our EMTs are in many individuals’ households at least once twice a month, In many circumstances. Let's help protect those individuals and get them better care.

One last question. You've been there for a while, obviously. This was Gov. Hochul’s first budget process. Aside from the fact that there was so much more federal money to use this time around that helped to balance the budget, was the budget process any different post-Andrew Cuomo from what you've seen in earlier years?

I think what was important, and being a local member, we see this a little bit more than others. The governor was pretty steady throughout the whole process. She didn't negotiate it in public. The former governor usually had a knack that as soon as the members left town on Wednesday, or they had the week off for the recess in February, he would kind of come out with some things where nobody was around to defend those things.

Overall, I think Gov. Hochul did a good job of just sticking to the script, negotiating one on two, with the respective legislative leaders, knowing that those legislative leaders had the responsibility to come back with a message from their 150 members of the Assembly and 63 members of Senate. So overall, I didn't think there was much drama, to be honest with you. I thought it was well done.

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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