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Will Barclay and Rachel May on the Campbell Conversations

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Will Barclay / Rachel May
Will Barclay / Rachel May

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Democratic Senator Rachel May and Republican Assemblyman Will Barclay. They discuss what we can expect in New York's legislative session in the coming year.

Program Transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. Once again, amidst COVID, the New York State Legislature begins another session. What can we expect this year? Joining me to discuss are New York State Assemblyman William Barclay and State Senator Rachel May. Assemblyman Barclay, a Republican, represents the 120th Assembly District and is the minority leader of that chamber. Senator May, a Democrat, represents the 53rd Senate District and is the chair of the Committee on Aging. Senator May, Assemblyman Barclay, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for making the time to talk with me.

RM: Glad to be here, Grant.

WB: Glad to be here too, Happy New Year.

GR: Yes. Happy New Year to you. Leader Barclay, let me start with you on this. What significant new initiatives do you think we are likely to see considered in this session? What are you expecting to come down the pike?

WB: Well, I can tell you what I'm hoping for. I think there's three things that New Yorkers are concerned about. Obviously, the COVID pandemic and how much longer we're going to be in this state of affairs. I think people are very wary about additional lockdowns, but they do want to obviously remain safe and they want to have decent health care that if they do get COVID, they'll be able to be provided for. So that's one thing I think we continue to have to monitor with. I think the economy and the inflation is another thing I hear from a lot of constituents I think New Yorkers are concerned about. And last but certainly not least, is public safety. And they're concerned about the big spike that we've seen throughout the state in violent crime. So I would like to see all those issues addressed. I think the governor in her state of the state kind of hit around the edges on some of those issues, although she didn't really put through anything that I thought was really revolutionary that was going to change the state. But some things I agree with, some things I probably didn't agree with. But ultimately, if you look at that in the macro level and then whatever policies flow down from those three topics, that's what I would like to see addressed. And hopefully, we can work together in a bipartisan manner to get that done.

GR: I definitely want to get into the discussion about COVID and where we go from here on that. But let me just follow up with you and then I'll get the Senator to jump in on the same question. But the second thing you mentioned, inflation and the economy. Are those things that the state can really do much about, particularly inflation? That would seem to me to be national affairs topics.

WB: Well, yeah. Obviously, our ability to totally conquer inflation is probably limited, but there's ways that we can provide immediate relief to middle-class families. One would be, I would suggest and our conference has put out a package on this is to repeal or pull back on a temporary basis the sales tax on gas, you’ve seen gas is what's really spiked and also on food products and also on home products. Those are seems like immediate relief that could provide middle-class families some help right now. So will that solve the inflation problem? No, but it would at least provide relief to families.

GR: I see. So if inflation is hiking up 6, 8% and we take the tax off, then it kind of leaves people where they were before. I understand that. Okay, Senator May, same question. What significant new initiatives do you think we're likely to see considered this session?

RM: Well, in terms of priorities, I agree largely with the assemblyman, except we probably have different policy prescriptions that go along with them. On inflation, I would say we're also seeing a very robust job market right now and almost full employment and lots of job opportunities out there. And so people's weekly costs are going up and we really have to be concerned about that, especially for people at the lowest end of the income spectrum. But we also want to continue the increase in jobs. And right here in Syracuse, we're seeing we're just about to open the first manufacturing plant, the first new manufacturing plant in the city in many decades. And a nation-leading, a 5G manufacturing plant. And so there is a lot of room for optimism, I think. And we shouldn't just be sort of talking pessimistically about what's happening in the economy.

GR: Okay. A reflection on what both of you said are actually what neither of you said. I didn't hear from either of you an expectation of significant new programs like the state either doing something equivalent to legalizing marijuana or building something new or starting something new. It's, you know, addressing things that are problems that are out there that are ongoing. Is it fair for me to conclude that this year is not going to be a year of big new initiatives?

RM: I disagree about that. And I think the governor was pretty ambitious in her state of the state. But my focus as chair of the Aging Committee is on raising wages for home care workers, which would be a game changer if we can do it. And there is massive support, bipartisan support for this. Everybody in the state knows somebody who is struggling to find a home care worker who is trying to keep their parents or other loved ones in their homes rather than going into nursing homes. Who is trying to get, you know, hot meals or care in the home for people and cannot find anybody to do it because the wages are so low that people are going into other jobs where they can make ends meet. And this is a result of a decade of austerity funding and our Medicaid budget. I think there is the political will, as well as the groundswell of popular support for making a real change in something that could improve the lives of countless New Yorkers. So I have optimism about this. I'm pushing very hard for this to happen. And, you know, it's addressing a problem. It's not a brand new kind of concept, but it would be a total game changer for the state of New York.

GR: I had a question for you about Medicaid since you brought it up. But Leader Barclay, on the specific thing that Senator May is talking about, she mentioned there's bipartisan support for that. Is that something that you support and that your caucus could get behind?

WB: Yeah, our conference has actually been on the forefront of that to try to help home health aides and whatnot to be able to provide the services that they do. And there has been a transformation in New York state where you see more of this versus institutional care. But we also have to be mindful, there is a cost to this. And the cost doesn't mean we can spend endlessly on all these programs. New York's Medicaid program is the most expensive in the nation, and so something we're doing is not lining up with the rest of the nation. I think that has to be looked at. And I think most my colleagues would agree to balance. So everybody wants to have additional programs, that's good. And if they can serve a good purpose and a governmental purpose, that's great. But we also have to be very mindful that all this costs a lot of money.

GR: Well, that was exactly Senator May the thing I was going to ask you about is that when I've looked at Medicaid in New York, I mean, the price tag is staggering in comparison to other states. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think our per capita cost for Medicaid is more than double that of California's. It might even be three or four times, but I could have that ratio off. But I would imagine that on the one hand, what you said is quite compelling, but on the other hand, to put it in the big picture of the Medicaid budget is maybe a tougher sell? No.

RM: Well, it's a tough sell because we're asking for $5 billion. But CUNY report came out last year that showed that if you make that investment, one of the reasons why our expenses are so high as we've been nickel and diming the real solutions like home care. And what that does is drive people into nursing homes where the care is far more expensive. So if you can take the global view of it, that $5 billion investment would return about twice that much in terms of the workers who would get off of public assistance and be paying income tax and sales tax in their communities. It would be the homeowners who would stay in their homes, continue paying their property taxes, continue spending money in their communities, rather than going into nursing homes. Like I said, the cost to Medicaid of people being in nursing homes is extremely high. And then on top of that, there is all the people in the state who are quitting their jobs in order to care for a loved one at a time when we really need people in the workforce. So if they could stay in their jobs and continue paying income tax and that sort of thing, you know, we would have the investment is more than outweighed. Now, one of the problems and something that's a crusade of mine and I don't know that we are going to fix it this year, but with a new governor, I have some hope, at least, of looking differently at the state budget. One of the problems with our budget is we can't make those kinds of accountings across the budget. We can't say if we save this amount of money in the Medicaid budget, it will, or if we pay this in the Medicaid budget, it will save money over here in the public health budget by people not going into emergency rooms or it will save money over and or it will, you know, return money in taxes. You know, we don't have the ability in the legislature to make that call. Only the Department of the Budget has that ability. And this budget director has not been interested in taking that kind of a global view of the budget. And so I think we need to really think more intelligently. We do spend a lot in Medicaid, but I think it's because we spend it badly and there are much better ways that we could be spending it if we if, you know, we could take that kind of global look.

GR: So let me turn to COVID now. And, Senator, you mentioned at the beginning that we should try to be more optimistic about things. I'm going to try here, but I want to pick up Leader Barclay. Come back to you on this. You mentioned both the need to address this, but also the fact that New Yorkers are weary and tired of more restrictions. And on that point, I guess what I want to know is what more can the state do? And in particular, the last in recent days, both Dr. Anthony Fauci and the head of the FDA have said now that particularly with omicron, COVID is just something that I think Fauci said, most of us are going to get this and we have to basically live with it and manage it that way. So where is the future on this for the state?

WB: Well, it's incredible how the narrative on COVIDs changed ultimately when, you know, when President Biden came in, there was an idea that he was going to solve the COVID problem. He was the one who going to be a solve it. And then we realized, well, he can't solve it. In fact, probably government can't solve it. A lot of the stuff that we've been told turns out not to be accurate. So I think we just have to keep our heads, our wits about us and try to rely on the science as best we can. But a few things I think we can do. First of all, finally, it looks like we got the testing situation seems to be better, but that was a real fail where we couldn't get the people get tested on a regular, easy basis. There's still a lot of improvement to be there, but at least finally, that seems to be on a better trend line. The other thing is getting back to these mandates. You know, we had the vaccination mandate for health care workers and that's caused a tremendous stress on our health care facilities that are short staffed. And when you put this mandate, when you lose again in the aggregate, the numbers may not be so bad. But if you're a hospital, you lose five or 10% of your workforce that's already struggling to keep their doors open to provide the service they need, putting that type of mandate on is kind of really cause stress both in hospitals and in nursing homes. I would prefer not to have those mandates. As you know, the governor has put an additional mandate for the booster shot, too, which is even more complicated to deal with, because it's unlike just getting the original vaccination booster shot. Sometimes you can't get them because you had COVID or you were not outside your window when you got the initial vaccination. So that seemed like completely all over the place. I don't think people really understand how that is even going to work. But again, there's other ways that we can do to make sure that we can protect those in the hospitals and nursing homes, keep them safe without putting these mandates that proven haven't really proven to be effective, unfortunately. So that's one thing maybe we can pull back a little bit on and ultimately, I think we need to focus on those members of our society that are highest risk. That's older people. People with co-morbidities, tends to be obesity obviously is a big factor. I think with people with the fatalities and COVID, we can protect those people in a kind of a focused manner as instead of just trying to say, everybody stay in your home, this thing hopefully pass some time, that doesn't hasn't worked yet. It doesn't seem to be working going forward. So ultimately, I'm pleased that there seems to be sort of an understanding maybe on the national level that, oh, wait a minute, we're going to have to live with this, we have to deal with this. So what's the best way to do that in that context? And I guess, if anything, I'm happy that there seems to finally be a realization on that.

GR: You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm talking with New York State Assemblyman Will Barclay, the minority leader of that chamber, and New York State Senator Rachel May, the chair of the Aging Committee. And we've been discussing the upcoming legislative session. Senator May, Leader Barclay was talking about the fight against COVID prior to the break. I assume you want to weigh in on that. And again, my departure point for this is, you know, what more can the state do? Should it do? Are we at a place now, as Dr. Fauci and others now at the national level seem to be suggesting, that this is something that most of us are going to get and we're going to have to manage in those terms?

RM: So, first of all, I want to say that a lot of the issues we've seen with vaccinations and vaccination mandates would not have been issues if there hadn't been a massive disinformation campaign scaring people about vaccinations and that is very unfortunate. I think what we're seeing is that the mandates worked in terms of many, many people got vaccinated and got more comfortable with the vaccinations. And now we have the vast majority of Americans have been vaccinated. So we you still need to be pushing vaccination, because I think it is true, this new variant is spreading really, really fast. But the people who are vaccinated are getting much less sick. They are spending much less time in the hospital right now. You know, the number one thing we've got to do is keep people out of the hospital because the hospitals are so stressed and the health care workforce is so stressed. And so anything we can do to stop the numbers of people from going into the hospital, we should do so. Getting vaccinated, getting, you know, doing the basic public health stuff, masking being smart about it, and not just assuming that I should go out there and get sick right now, because that's we don't want that to be the message there. But in terms of the health care workforce, I want to come back to that that we really, I appreciated what the governor said. She led with that in her state of the state as the key thing that we need more nurses. We need to do more workforce development for nurses. I've been working on things locally on that score. I think, you know, making sure that our health care system can handle the ongoing pandemic that's going to be with us for a long, long time now. So, you know, I think it's a multi-pronged approach that we have to take.

GR: And one of the things, I guess stepping out of the role of questioner, and I'll add something to the conversation here, at least based on my reading, my understanding is that as far as the severity and also the chances of contracting the omicron, the booster is particularly important for that. At least in the last data that I looked at.

WB: I happen to agree with the senator that everybody, I’ve been vaccinated, I’ve been boostered, and I encourage everybody to get out and vaccinated and boostered. But, you know, that was originally told to us. Everybody gets that. Don't worry, you won't be able to spread the virus and you will be safe from the virus. Just turns out that doesn't seem to be the case. Now, does that help you? It seems that way. And I have to say, why not? You know, what's the risk in getting if it does help, great. But I think, again, we have to be very careful about making this wide announcement, saying get the vaccine and you're going to be saved. Don't worry, you can go on living in a life that just has nothing that’s gone on with this pandemic has proven out to be exactly what the experts have been tellin’ us, so I’m a little weary about that. But I will say personally, I happen to believe everybody ought to get vaccinated and boosted.

GR: And one of the problems with this, it seems, and we'll never really know because we can't do the experiment again, fortunately or maybe we will, unfortunately, is what would have happened had there been a more full take-up earlier on. What would have happened had we been more even more careful about masking and social distancing early on? One of the things that has struck me in all of this is there doesn't now seem to be overall looking at the overall numbers, any clear pattern in terms of states that were more restrictive versus states, a lot of states that were less restrictive. However, having had two years at a public health school way back in my past, what that says to me more than anything else is that this required a national-level effort. And you can't solve this on a state-by-state basis if you have uneveness in the system, it's going to sink to the lowest level. That's what public health people will tell you every time when it comes to a contagious disease. But. Well, let me shift to the budget and both of you have already talked about the budget in various ways, talking about different spending. Senator, email starters we have we keep this one pretty brief. Do you think that our budget this year is going to set another record?

RM: I don't know what the top line number will be. I do know there's going to be there already is a lot of federal money that we will be using in the budget, which makes it hard to figure out, you know, what the outlays are for New York state taxpayers. I hope that the Build Back Better plan can pass. I wish a few Republicans would just get on board and then we would be able to pass that. And we would have support for child care and for home care and for so many of the things that we need support for. So I, I honestly don't know. I'm, I'm we're all waiting to see what the governor's budget looks like and what we're going to be able to add or subtract there to that budget.

GR: Leader Barclay, similar question. The thing I'll add in and Senator May you want to comment on this as well, that's fine. But there's an interesting political environment going on here. The governor is running for election. And I would think that that would put certain pressures on her. One thing, to get a budget done on time prior to the primary, but what are your thoughts on where the budget's going to go?

WB: Well, I have no doubt it's going to be higher than last year. I don't see anybody in either majority, Senator May can speak to this, but in either the Assembly or in the Senate, or with the governor looking to lower or cut spending in New York state, in fact, they want to increase spending at really high rate. So it'd be shocking to me, particularly going in an election year, that we're looking at some sort of austerity budget going forward. I just don't think that'll be the case. I suspect you'll see large increases in this year's budget.

GR: Senator May, how do you think that the politics surrounding the governor's race might affect the budget? Leader Barclay seems to think that might be something, pushing it up a little bit.

RM: Well, I do know Governor Hochul has made it a priority to get money out the door that Governor Cuomo was holding back a lot of the federal funding for, for example, rent relief and that sort of thing. She has worked very hard to get that money out the door. So I think at the very least, we're seeing a lot more efficient or shorter lag time in in government spending, which is really important in New York state and one of the reasons why, as for my fairly short perspective in state government, why things cost so much is because you allocate the money three years ago and you have to spend it three years later and everything has gotten more expensive. And if the state could get the money out in an efficient way, we could also spend the money in a much more efficient way. So I'm hoping this governor gets that and is really working so far. It looks like she's working to make sure that we're maximizing the impact of the dollars that we spend.

GR: So I want to try to squeeze a couple more questions in if possible. Leader Barclay, how would you assess Governor Hochul's leadership so far?

WB: Well, you know, being a Republican, I'm upset to her drift to the left. I was very optimistic when she came in, even though she was part. We kind of lose sight that she was part of the former administration not coming in with completely clean hands and saying this is someone completely new. She served as lieutenant governor, presumably the second highest position in the executive branch. So I was hopeful when she comes in being upstater and she'd understand maybe some more acutely some of the challenges we face here. But obviously, she's trying to get through a primary and so that's caused her to drift left. Whether she really believes, you know, in our hearts, she's a, you know, a hardcore progressive or not, I don't know. So I'm just a little disappointed with that. You know, again, her state of the state was what kind of set her direction where she thinks the state ought to go. There's some things you can probably be happy about and there are some things maybe you would be unhappy and you would like her to talk more about. It ultimately comes down to and I've talked about this on this show, a lot of times we have to change the trajectory the state’s on. We just lost another 300,000 people in New York. And it happens to be my thought. It's because we're still doing the same old tax and spend programs going out there and it's not working. People are leaving our state. So I would like to see her bring up some real changes in New York, how to change the way the states on. And unfortunately, I just didn't see that. And I think the political realities of her trying to win this seat, even if she wanted to do it, does not allow her to do that.

GR: Senator, you've said some pretty complimentary things so far during this half-hour about Governor Hochul’s leadership. Do you give her pretty high marks?

RM: So far, I mean, she said some really direct things in her speech that I think we needed to hear about government ethics, about working with the legislature for a change. The previous governor was supremely dismissive of the legislature and that I don't think serves the people of the state. So I think, you know, being more collaborative, but also because she came out of local government and is from upstate, I think she understands a lot of the realities on the ground that Governor Cuomo just didn't care about. And so I do think in terms of making sure that the state government is working hand in hand with the local governments to actually make people's lives better. I think she gets that. So the details are out. I'm frustrated with her about some of her appointments, but others, I think she's made some good appointments about, she vetoed a couple of bills at the end of the year that I'm not happy about. But, you know, in general, I, I'm waiting to see her budget, but I think in, in general, I think she's taken the right tack starting now.

GR: So we only have a minute left. I guess I always do this to the two of you. We're going to end with a lightning round. This one's a doozy. But Leader Barclay, I'll start with you very quickly. Former President Trump seems very intent on getting involved in the midterm elections and the presidential election in 2024. Is this a good thing for the future of the Republican Party? In 20 seconds or less.

WB: Yeah, I think time will tell. I mean, I think that's part of his personality he always wants to be part of the mix. But if he actually we'll see whether he will actually be part of the mix going forward. We keep going back to President Trump. You know, he's no longer president of the United States he’s down there. So, I mean, I'm not saying he doesn't have influence and some influence on the party, but I think a lot of people are just looking forward to moving on.

GR: Okay. And Senator May ten second comment on that and we'll end there.

RM: Well, he's still refusing to accept the results of the election, and he's being supported by the vast majority of leaders in his party. And I think we need responsible Republicans like Leader Barkley to really stand up and say, this is not my Republican Party, the white supremacy, the conspiracy theories, the lies. We need you to really be a leader in this and move us past this.

WB: I appreciate that but I don't know about the white supremacy comment that may be a bit over the top. Most Republicans I know are not white supremacists and probably the majority –

WB: * You could say the same about the other party and the extremes in the other party. So that's the kind of rhetoric –

RM: * I agree about that but Donald Trump (unintelligible) –

RM: * and that support and that that element in the party –

WB: * Doesn’t support white supremacy, where did you (unintelligible) –

GR: Well that is a conversation, that is a conversation obviously there's a disagreement about. But I'm going to end it with Leader Barclay being the responsible leader that Senator May said he was.

WB: Thank you. I'll take that. Thank you.

GR: That was Rachel May and Will Barclay, thanks to both of you for making the time to talk with me. You've been listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, conversations in the public interest.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.