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Assemblyman D. Billy Jones discusses state budget and Benjamin resignation

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (file)

New York state’s new $220 billion budget will fund a number of projects and initiatives across the North Country region. Democrat D. Billy Jones, who represents the 115th Assembly District, talked about the budget’s benefits with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley this week. They began by discussing the arrest of former Lieutenant Governor Brian Benjamin on federal corruption charges.

I think I was one of the first to do it of my colleagues. And like that statement said it has no place. I think people are sick and tired of our public officials who are held on a certain level to be responsible and certainly not break the law and be ethically responsible as well.  And it shouldn’t have gotten to that stage. I think through the process of selecting Mr. Benjamin, Senator Benjamin at the time, there were mistakes along the way. And when we go back and look at that certainly there should have been things that were done differently.

Can we trust Governor Hochul’s judgement considering that as you just said mistakes were made in the selection process for Brian Benjamin being Lieutenant Governor?

Certainly. And I just think you know she has spoken on this. And you have to be responsible for your own decisions. Certainly this wasn’t one of the Governor’s shining moments and I feel that he probably shouldn’t have, or he shouldn’t have been selected anyway knowing everything we know. So, you know, she’ll certainly be scrutinized for that in the future.

Assemblywoman Paulin has introduced a bill to remove Benjamin from the ballot. Her legislation would call for a candidate that’s been charged with a crime to be able to be removed from the ballot. Right now that can’t happen. What do you make of her bill?

I respect Amy and I know her very well. I think right now to introduce that like right now it might be seen as trying to change the rules in the middle of the game. I think in the future it’s probably a piece of legislation that we should certainly look at because I think there are certain things that happen, occurrences that happen on either side of the aisle Democrat, Republican, Independent, whatever, that there should be options out there. But I think to do it right now it’s seen as changing the rules in the middle of the game.

So should Benjamin’s name remain on the ballot?

I think it’s quite a conundrum for everyone involved. I think legally it has to unless a couple things happen, right? So it’s a difficult situation. And I would prefer that it didn’t. But the rules are what the rules are right now and I believe that the Senate has already said they’re not going to take that piece of legislation up.

As a democrat are you concerned about what this means for the fall elections for Democrats across the state, whether it’s Kathy Hochul at the head of the ballot or any down-ballot races?

As a member of the Assembly and as a resident of New York state I’m concerned about it on a general level if not politics aside. I’m concerned that we hold our public officials on a certain level, and this was a direct result of his job, right, directly resulting from a role that he played within the government. So certainly when that happens, you know, like I said we need to hold people accountable. As simply a resident of New York state, but as an Assembly member, we can’t put up with this anymore. If we’re talking politics, no it’s not a good thing. It's going to be a tough year anyway. I like to concentrate on delivering results here to the North Country. I’ve always done that. I don’t get into the partisan bickering. I continue to do my job. I will continue to do my job. And if the people choose at the end of the day that they want somebody else that’s their choice but I’m not going down without a fight I can tell you that.

Well speaking about doing the job the other thing that has occurred since we last spoke was New York state has a budget. A lot of money coming to the North Country region. Among things that might benefit the area is water and sewer treatment projects, the Adirondack Diversity Institute gets some money, more money for broadband and one of the things that you were pushing for – the fiber connection fee was eliminated. And even more for items that you’ve been pushing for in agriculture and education and stuff. What’s your overall assessment?

My overall assessment in this budget is the same that I have for any other budget. You can find a lot of good in it and some bad. And I think when you’re talking about a $220 billion price tag you can find something for everyone. But certainly there is bad in there. But I think overall it is a ton of money. It’s a lot of money. I would’ve liked to have seen some of that put in the reserves. A lot of this money’s coming in from federal, federal infusion of stimulus I should say, and our tax receipts were way up last year so it created a lot of revenue. But there’s nothing wrong with putting a little money away for a rainy day and I think we should’ve put some more there. But certainly a lot of great programs. Agriculture, veteran’s programs here in the North Country, a middle class tax cut, property taxes we’re doing something about that, the gas tax holiday. There are a lot of things that are in there to help people out. Number one issue on peoples’ minds right now is inflation and I think us as New York state government we’re stepping up and saying we can do a part, we still have to have help here on the federal level, local level, we all need to be in this. But I think New York state said you know what we all need to be in this and we have to do something to help people and their pocketbooks and we’re going to do what we can. And I have three words for you. Number one issue consistently throughout my career as the Assembly: broadband, broadband, broadband. We need it here in the North Country and throughout New York state. You talked about the DOT Right-of-Way tax that I have fought to get out of existence for past three years. It was snuck into the budget a couple, three years ago. That will help our smaller companies here in rural areas like the North Country. It was a hindrance to them. It’ll help them build out more broadband to our rural areas. And we have over $1 billion here in broadband funding to help get public-private partnerships so that we can put more cable in the ground to get broadband out to those people. We need it. It plays a critical role in every facet if our lives. And it’s needed. It’s desperately needed, not only for us socially but economically.

A group is organizing in the Plattsburgh region to try to get a third bridge built across Lake Champlain.  Assemblyman D. Billy Jones says he has written to the state Department of Transportation regarding the potential to conduct a feasibility study.

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