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NYS Assembly Minority Leader Barclay on the budget, LG Brian Benjamin, bail, and more

NYS Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay
NYS Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay
NYS Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay

New York Governor Kathy Hochul and fellow Democrats who control the state legislature say the new $220 billion state budget — which came in more than a week late — includes key investments around the state, tax relief, school aid, and more. It also makes tweaks to several criminal justice measures, paves the way for new downstate casinos, and makes permanent alcohol-to-go sales, a popular pandemic-era measure.

Across the aisle, Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay of the 120th district north of Syracuse says Hochul failed to bring transparency to her first budget process — and although it includes some measures he welcomes, he says the spending plan is simply too large.

Before we talk about the state budget, there's some breaking news as we speak that the lieutenant governor has been arrested as part of a bribery scheme. What's your reaction to that news?

Well, obviously, it's very disappointing and sad. We have had a history of corruption in Albany. And unfortunately it seems like that's continuing. Obviously, Lieutenant Governor, just like any citizen, is innocent until proven guilty. But you know, if he is proven guilty, I just think it's, again, one of the sad situations and it just points the fact that we do need real ethics reform in Albany.

One of the things I've been critical in this year's budget, they reformed it, I guess, if you want to say that, the J-COPE system, but they still have Democratic controlled ethics committee. In my mind until it's bipartisan with equal amount of Republicans and Democrats, you're never going to get a real investigatory oversight committee on ethics.

How should those people be appointed, though Because that's part of the debate.

Well, you know, you're never gonna get politics out of politics. So that's why I think it needs to be bipartisan, so I think equal amounts appointed by Republican leaders versus equal amounts appointed by Democrat leaders. It's in the interest of Republicans to keep Democrats accountable. And it's in the interest of Democrats to keep Republicans accountable. When you have Democrats dominating every ethics body that we have, other than the legislative Ethics Commission, it doesn't seem like that is an even or fair way to investigate ethics.

So the indictment has been unsealed against lieutenant governor, but we're still awaiting some more details. Do you think based on what we know now, Lieutenant Governor Benjamin should resign?

Oh, absolutely. Without a doubt, I mean, there’s been ethics questions surrounding the lieutenant governor for some time, but it's the U.S. Attorney investigating, arresting him. So it's pretty substantial. I don't know how you can go forward with your job with this cloud over you. The problem is his name is on the ballot, if I understand the legal ramifications, so unless he is convicted, dies or moves out of state, he’ll still be on the ballot next year. But at this time, with the substance of these complaints, I think it's reasonable to seek his resignation.

Do you think that this undercuts Governor Hochul’s argument about starting a new day in Albany after she took over for Andrew Cuomo last summer, who left amid his own scandals? You know, she's pledged to clean up the Capitol.

Well, I don't know how you can say it doesn't undercut it. Her number two in the executive branch has now been arrested for bribery and campaign finance fraud. So obviously, it's interesting, she said she's going to begin fresh, which I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. But you got to remember she did come from the Cuomo administration. She was Cuomo’s number two. So and I don't think she's ever satisfactorily answered any of the questions on what she knew during the Cuomo era of some of the bad actions that were taking place during that administration. But this is a continuation. And unfortunately for her, she was a member of both his administration now as the head of the administration, two number two has been arrested, I think certainly doesn't reflect well on her.

So let's talk about the state budget now. I think if I'm characterizing this correctly, you think it's a mixed bag, there are some things you liked in it and some things you didn't. Let's start with what you like.

Yeah, well, obviously, it's a $220 billion budget, when there's that much spending going on, you're going to like some of the programs that we spend money on. And that I guess the thing also I like is there were some tax cuts. We'd like to see some go further, but we accelerated the middle class tax cut, I think was good. We have the STAR rebate program at $2.2 billion. I think that's good for property owners around the state. And something my conference and myself have been fighting for since last year was removing the gas tax. We're seeing, obviously, record high fuel prices. And when you live in rural areas, when you're dependent on driving your car, any savings you can have for the price of gas goes a long way. So I was pleased to see that was, at least temporarily, repealed.

Any other measures that you support in this package?

Well, you can say a lot. I mean, school aid is always a struggle. I represent a district that has Well, well, school districts. So the fact that we increased school aid will help my school districts. But I've always said we need to continue to reform that system where we drive more state aid towards low wealth school districts so we don't have to increase school aid to such an extent, but obviously, that's a politically hot button an issue. And since my time in Albany no one's been able to tackle it, but that's really where I'd like to see. But of course, anything that would help personally, my school districts, I'm happy about.

Was there anything different about this budget process? You're in the minority, obviously. Albany is famous for the three people in a room setup. Did Governor Hochul do it any differently than her predecessor?

No. In fact, she even said this was a normal budget process. I think, again, that was terribly disappointing. It may be normal, but doesn't make it right. The lack of transparency, and the three men in a room — three people in the room, excuse me, that's one change, I guess. But it seems more of the same. And unfortunately, when you have processes like this, I think the final product isn't necessarily good, because it doesn't have buy-in. Even the rank and file Democratic members were left in the dark on a lot of this stuff, you know. What they do is, the members on their side will go and advocate to their leader some pet program or whatever they want and maybe they'll get in there, maybe it won't. But the overall picture of the budget is really kept in the dark until the very end, which ultimately, I don't think leads to good public policy.

You and other Republicans have criticized the size of the budget. You say $220 billion, which was the final number, more than the governor originally proposed, is just too much money to spend. What would you say to the argument that, you know, New York is flush for a change given the federal investments. The comptroller applauded Governor Hochul for keeping the budget basically balanced and building up some reserves. So what would you say to that?

Well, first of all, I do appreciate the comptroller’s comments. The comptroller also said, we took a lot of federal aid, that's one-time aid, and used it for programs for operating that's going to cause out years to be potentially unbalanced. So I think that's very concerning. But ultimately, we're losing people in New York state. We're losing over a million people in the last decade. They're not moving out because of the weather. They're moving out because of New York's tax and spend mentality. And this budget is a continuation of that. Yes, we did have a lot of federal money in this year, we had state revenues come in well, but you can maybe get through this year without spending but in out years, it's gonna have to be paid for. And unfortunately, whenever we have these types of imbalances, my colleagues on the other side of the aisle want to raise taxes. And that's something I think we can ill afford to do as New Yorkers. Our taxes are already too high in New York State. And I suspect they're going to attempt to raise them again when we're not so flush in revenue with the budget.

What about criminal justice reforms? The Democrats did move a little bit on bail reform, they've made some changes here. I take it you're not satisfied.

Yeah, it doesn't go anywhere near far enough. Obviously, it's a step in the right direction. We have come up now in a number of budget cycles, one when Governor Cuomo was elected, and now this one, with a realization that bail reform or so called bail reform is failing New Yorkers. We’re seeing huge spikes in violent crime, not only in New York City, but throughout the state.

Now, I would agree that bail reform isn't the only reason for that. But it's certainly a contributing factor. And that needs to be reformed even further. You know, I'm happy that there was some movement on it, but you need to get judges discretion. We did a little bit of that. With the second time someone appears before the judge, but seems crazy that we're only waiting for the second time in order to have judges discretion. I would like to see additional crimes added to require to have cash bail.

What would you say to the idea that it's too early to make changes to the bail reform laws, which just took effect in 2020? We don't have a lot of data yet. As you say, there has been a spike in crime in the U.S., but it's unlikely that it's largely tied to New York's laws even in New York state. So did these reforms get enough time to be put you put in practice?

Well, I might disagree with that premise that there hasn't been some reflection that bail reform is having a negative effect. I think the Times Union did a story and they found 2 or 3%. But those numbers, first of all, if you have one more death as a result of bail reform, should we look at it make sure that that's the appropriate policy?

But, you know, when you're talking 2,000, 3,000, 4000 people that may have been victims of repeat offenders, I think that shows that the system needs to be reviewed. So again, I'm not saying bail reform is responsible for all this, but you have other factors involved. And I think we need to go back and look at. Raise the age. Again, there's been extensive look at by the Times Union, that found some real serious problems with Raise the Age and you have this whole defund the police narrative that I think also adding to this increase in crime. And right now, I think we ought to be supporting, whether it's in the state or nationally, we ought to be supporting our law enforcement and not criticizing them to the extent a lot of the radicals, progressives from New York City are doing.

What's on your plate between now and the end of the legislative session in June that didn't get tackled in this budget?

Well, there's so many things that we have to deal with. I think criminal justice continues to be an issue, although that was addressed a little bit in the budget. I'd like to see it go further. I'd like to see some reform to Raise the Age. I think that is something that needs to go forward. And then we have to be careful always. We pass a lot of legislation in Albany, a lot of the legislation can be very oppressive on New York citizens. And I think instead of going that direction, we should be heading the other direction, where we're taking off some of these oppressive measures on New York citizens so people can live and grow here independently, they don't need government completely controlling every aspects of their lives. So, you know, a lot of stuff that we do in the minority is trying to stop bad bills. But listen, we're always ready to work in a bipartisan manner in any way that we think will make New York better.

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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