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Assemblyman McDonald previews 2023 New York state legislative session

Democratic State Assemblyman John McDonald speaking Feb. 25, 2020
Jackie Orchard
Democratic State Assemblyman John McDonald speaking Feb. 25, 2020

After two special sessions in 2022, New York state lawmakers are coming back to Albany for the full new term starting January 4th. Democrats will retain their majorities in the state Senate and Assembly, and Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul is back for a full term after a narrow win in November’s election. In addition to the state budget process, lawmakers are also likely to consider criminal justice measures and more. Joining us now for a preview is state Assemblyman John McDonald of the 108th district.

So, as a lawmaker, what's your resolution for 2023?

You know, actually, it's about priorities and I think that's what I’d like to share with you today, we have a lot of different priorities we want to push forward this year. Obviously, public safety still remains a very large issue that I think we can make improvement on, particularly when it comes to illegal guns. You know, a lot of attention is rightly spent on illegal guns of the high caliber, but I'm more concerned about the illegal guns in the streets, particularly younger individuals who are not going to jail over it and we need to take a much stronger approach on that. It's very unsettling to most people and if we're going to have a policy that we're against illegal guns, it's illegal guns for everybody.

Just if I could interrupt for a second, what do you mean by changes a stronger approach to that? What would you do differently?

So, one of the challenges we have and this is one of the caveats of raise the age, we agree that individuals 15, 16-year-olds should not be treated like career criminals. However, at the same token, when they're riding through the neighborhoods in Arbor Hill or South Troy, wherever it may be, with illegal guns, it's wrong. Whether you're 19 or whether you're 16, it's dead wrong and you know, what's happened, unfortunately, as some of the gangs have recruited these younger members of the community to carry out the acts that the penalty is not so severe, they would just be held in family court and they'd be released with their parents and life goes on until the case is adjudicated. We can't do that. We need to send a strong message that illegal guns not tolerated. Plain and simple.

Do you think there is support among Democratic leadership for revisiting that issue?

That's a question that has not been answered yet. I think there are some aspects of it. I think we've voiced this concern within the assembly. I can't speak for the Senate and obviously the governor has laid out concerns about public safety and I will agree with this. Let's follow the data. If we follow the data, I think you're going to find out that there are some young folks out there that have been recruited to carry out some of these crimes, and it's just not right. It's wrong, and it's dangerous. So, it's something that public definitely is concerned about something that we need to continue to follow up on.

Do you think public safety and the criminal justice reforms from previous legislatures were a liability for your party in the last election?

Well, if you look at the outcomes, it doesn't look like it was. The majorities haven’t changed too much. However, at the same token, let's not look at the outcomes. Let's look at how the public feels. The public is concerned. Now honestly, a lot of mistruths out there. A lot of inaccurate information it made for great political fodder. No matter what happened, whether the sun came up or down, it was the fault of bail reform. And the opposition did a great job of pinning the tail on the donkey. The problem is they printed on the wrong one, which is why I'm frustrated because bail reform on its merits, tried to address inadequacy for those who are poor. However, what was misleading to the public, from my perspective, is that there are serious issues when it comes to illegal guns. That has nothing to do with bail reform at all. Absolutely nothing. At the same token, people use that for political fodder. So, as you can tell, I'm extremely frustrated about it because at the end of the day, it's about the merit, not the politics and I think we need to do better. We need to instill more confidence in the public, and we also need to support public safety. Our officers are out there, they're dealing with some very challenging situations when it comes either to young people with legal guns, and then of course, in the domestic violence world. So, we need to be we need to really take a hard look at these items in the coming year.

Well, I interrupted your train of thought before. So, what else is on your list?

So, other areas that are of interest, of course is housing. Housing has become a much larger issue. We know that during the pandemic, all landlords basically couldn't evict anybody. We knew there was going to be an outcome, as much as we pretty much pushed $3 billion of federal funds out the door to help landlords and tenants get caught up, the truth of the matter is the demand is great, the supply is little. We need to build and invest more in workforce housing. Many individuals are having 30%, 40%, 50% of their household incomes tied up by the rent and that's just not, it's not sustainable. It's a place where I think as much as the financial clouds down the years to follow look a little concerning. The governor has appropriately been putting money aside in reserves to build up for the rainy day, but we still have a fair amount of funds that we can use one time to help jumpstart some more workforce housing perspectives. Another area that I'm very concerned about is our whole healthcare ecosystem. You talk to the folks at Albany Med or St. Peter's here in the Capital Region, the demand for nurses is significantly high. These traveling nurse organizations have pushed up the rate for these hospitals, which has put them into the deficit tends to $20, $40 or $50 million and the same token, nursing homes are struggling too. We need to flood the zone with more nurses. We need to manage these traveling nurse companies that are really pushed up the rates and the other aspect is we need to also have an open mind in regards to how patients are getting to the hospital. You know, as a former mayor, there are many individuals who would call EMS, 911, for a lot of different things. Most of which were not healthcare critical. There were items that quite frankly, in some circumstances were born out of loneliness. They have a stomach ache. My concern is that we are not using the state's resources properly., in regards to transporting a lot of individuals to hospital when they don't need to. Let's expand telemedicine. Let's have that patient talk directly face to face via monitor to a physician or a nurse practitioner or a PA. They may be able to really help give them a better assessment with what's going on, without requiring that transport. That transport costs money. Those ambulance companies are paying for that we still need to recognize the service they have when they go there. But on the other hand, if they're not transported to the hospital, that's a good thing because let's face it, in this day and age, you go to the hospital, in the emergency room. If you're in an ambulance, it may be three or four hours putting on an ambulance, it's so backed up. So, that whole ecosystem is really struggling from the nursing home to the hospital to the ER, out to the community. It's impacting ambulance response time, and it's impacting our residents. So, we need to maybe target our resources properly, but also look at the processes. Does everybody really need to go to the emergency room? Not in the day when we really should be supporting primary care.

Well, a couple of those items that you just mentioned, including housing and health care have been previewed by Governor Hochul as things she'll focus on in her State of the State and her Budget Plan. But you also alluded to the, sort of uncertain fiscal picture in New York State. Do you think that the budget, which you know, last year was a record setting number, do you think there will be enough money to go around for these priorities in what's an increasingly uncertain time for state finances?

So, you raise a good point, Ian. Let's be clear on the record setting funding. A lot of it was due to one-time federal funding. So, we were basically the conduit. That will continue on this year as well in those areas, strategically education, particularly focusing on mental health but also in childcare. Which as you know, has now become a very critical part of our economic development plan. So, those are federally targeted funds that will be part of our budget. So, our numbers still will be high. The challenge is going to be, I don't know if we're going to have the latitude to expand beyond those areas. Areas that I'm very much concerned about, that still need consideration is home care, and the care for the developing disabled. Those are vulnerable populations, as one who spends a lot of time still in health care, and as one who spends a lot of time visiting people in their home and with the developmentally disabled. The work that these individuals are doing to care for these most vulnerable populations is remarkable. The fact that they may be getting $14.20 an hour as of the first of the year is almost insulting. So, we've got to find a way to help expand their wages. But, you know, we also know that there's a better than 50% chance that next year will be a recession of some sort, and we know that Wall Street is going to suffer. As much as people may resent Wall Street because the amount of money they make, what they should do is embrace it because those individuals who make a lot of money on Wall Street, pay significant amount of income taxes that helps our state budget move forward. We know Wall Street is going to take a hit, at least the executives and the people have been making money off of it and that's going to give us some uncertainty for the next couple of years. So, this next budget probably won't be terribly bad. I think ‘24-‘25 is going to be a big challenge and that's why the governor started, almost within a month of when she took office in August of 2021, putting aside about $4-$5 billion each year, into the rainy day funds, because we know that the storm clouds are coming.

Let me wrap up by asking you about the latest special session at which lawmakers approved a pay raise. Can you make the case for why you voted for that, why lawmakers deserved a pay raise? Because we've been getting, of course, a lot of criticism from the other side of the aisle, but also constituents who have voiced concern about this.

Yeah, absolutely. That was a very big challenge for me for a couple different perspectives. Number one, the limit on outside income. As much as I'm kind of at the point in my life where I really don't need it, by any stretch of the imagination. I do believe individuals who work in the private sector bring real time experience. I was very unhappy about that, because I think it's going to it's going to pay its price down the road.

Let me just explain for people, there will be a limit on most forms of outside income that takes effect in another year, or two years from now, 2025 of $35,000 a year, and you in your other life are running a pharmacy in Cohoes.

Yes, I'm a practicing pharmacist but at the end of the day, this isn't about me, right? And we’ve got to make that very clear. The salary, the increase is significant. There's no doubt about that and let's be very clear, there's never a good time for salary increase, never has been, never will be. You know, many people kind of forgot that for almost 20, 22 years, there was no salary increase. It stayed at $79,000 and then it was bumped back in 2018 to $110,000. It was supposed to then $130,000 but there was a little bit of a mix up that went on with the outside income and that kind of put things off. So, the $142,000 arrived at getting to the $130,000 but also factoring in inflation. Is it a lot? Absolutely. No doubt about it. One of the reasons why at the end of the day, when I did my considerations, I've said, you know, if it's hard to vote, it's easy to vote no, right? It's kind of funny, a lot of people who voted no were saying, “Yeah, I'm going to vote no and take the dough.” On the other hand, from my perspective, I was reminded a long time ago from one of my predecessors when I came into assembly, he said, “You’ve got to remember something, you're lucky, you get to rest your head in Albany every single night. Most of the members come from downstate, whether it's Long Island, New York City, Rockland, Orange County, whatever it may be. They come here, that salary doesn't go too far in this community and quite frankly, it has an impact on the stability of the body.” And you know, Ian, I didn't really recognize that until about three weeks ago, I was looking at where I was in seniority, and I counted up how many members have left the left the assembly, now the assembly is a body of 150. Over 130 members have left the assembly in the 10 years I've been there. That's a significant number because what's happened and what I've seen happen in my 10 years in the legislature, is that individuals would come particularly from the city, just to make a name for themselves and they'd stay for two or three years and then go and get elected to the City Council, which pays a lot more. It's like $150,000 a year plus many other benefits and you get to stay home. So, you know, one of the reasons why I supported this and it may not resonate with the people living here, but the people, if you step back, you'll think about it. I've noticed that those members who do come and decide to stay actually get exposed to the issues in a much more holistic value and they really actually tend to be a little bit more practical about how we approach public policy, which I think has been lost over time. I think, like I said, there have been individuals that have come here. They're in a hurry to move on to another office or trying to get something hooked up with a lobbying firm or whatever it may be and you know, I get it, people have to make a living. It's kind of interesting because usually you hear the question, we want term limits and I always say, you know, I'd love to have the discussion of term limits so we could keep members here long enough to have that discussion and that is one of the little secrets that nobody really talks about around here. So, that's what eventually led to my decision. It was a vote that was, I would say, not close, it was almost 30 votes, which is significant and they had a similar percentage margin in a Senate. So, that's where we're at with that.

Well, do you agree that with the leaders who say this really is a full-time job, and that's why this sizable raise is justified?

I easily spend 50 to 60 hours a week on that job. Do I tend to also hang out the pharmacy and do things? I'm lucky, I can freelance and I can work whenever I want in the pharmacy, I don't need to be locked into a certain schedule. Yes, I do agree with the leaders, it has become a full-time job and you know what, it is a privilege. I've never, ever taken it for granted by any stretch of the imagination. But once again, you know, being a Capitol Region member who's lucky enough that he can be at his workplace at the Capitol in eight minutes and back home, in his hometown of Cohoes where his pharmacy is in eight minutes. I'm very lucky and an exception. Most people are not able to continue outside employment. I think last count, there was maybe 12 members between both houses that had some kind of outside income and when you're looking at $110,000, in the city of New York, that doesn't go far. It really doesn't. Cost of living is quite expensive. I have a daughter who lives down there and I see how she struggles. At the end of the day, it becomes challenging and like I said, my hope was that this will limit this outside chart. I'm not hoping that people become lifers by any stretch of the imagination and stay 30 or 40 years either. But, like anything else in life, the longer people are in a position, the more they get to look at the issues on a 360-degree view and hopefully, that will lead to greater public policy.

Well, what will you do? And two, three years from now? Would you rather be a full-time pharmacist or a full-time lawmaker?

You know, I actually enjoy doing what I'm doing right now, which gets me about 70 to 80 hours’ worth of work a week. So, I'm fine and this is what they said in the beginning. This isn't about me. It's not voting about my rebellion against the outside income. It's looking at the body as a whole. So, I'll still maintain my license, I'll still practice pharmacy as much as it is. But you know, I'm moving on in years too. I'm just touching the 60’s, so at some point, you got to cut it back a little bit. But from my perspective, more of my time, for the last 10 years I've been here in the assembly has been focused primarily on the legislative work. The pharmacy, I'm in a unique situation where I can come and go.

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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