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Will Barclay and Rachel May on the Campbell Conversations

Will Barclay / Rachel May
Will Barclay / Rachel May

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations. I'm Grant Reeher. Governor Hochul recently delivered her State of the State speech and then subsequently presented her budget. Now the legislature will consider that budget. As we've done in past years, we're going to hear some reactions from both sides of the aisle in the state legislature. But today, we're doing it a bit differently in that we'll hear first from one representative and then the other. And this was done just for scheduling reasons. My guest for the first half of the program is State Senator Rachel May. Senator May, a Democrat, represents the 48th Senate District and is the chair of the Senate Committee on Small and Medium Cities. She's been on the program many times before. Senator May, welcome back and it's good to see you again.

State Senator Rachel May: Thank you, Grant. Always glad to be here.

GR: All right. Well, let me just start with the state of the state. The governor seemed in this speech to pull in her wings a little bit in terms of larger proposed initiatives concerning affordable housing, for instance. Was that your sense, too in listening to it? And what is your view of that?

RM: Yeah, I felt like she tried to put on an optimistic face, but generally, she was pretty small bore in the state of the state. I think that was true. She did lean into the AI issue and some other things that I think are important. But in general, yeah, it was I was sad. I have been sad in general because I'm working very hard on housing. We hear every day from people who are struggling to find affordable housing in our district, and I hope she will be a partner in that as we move forward.

GR: And also, it seemed to my ear that she tacked a bit right on crime and criminal justice. And that's been a big issue in the state in recent years. Was there anything there that you had concerns about or that you liked hearing from her in that regard?

RM: Well, I think that was true in her campaign as well. I think she has been seeing herself as presenting kind of a opposition to the legislature on criminal justice, even though I don't think, in fact, the analysis of what we have done is really true. But yeah, she did some of that as well. I guess I’d agree with that.

GR: And so you mentioned hearing some of those rhetoric in the campaign. Do you think what we saw then in the State of the State and we'll get into the budget a bit but you know, on housing, criminal justice, was this kind of a reaction to the relatively close shave she got in her election campaign do you think?

RM: That could be That could be. I have been a little sad and we've been, I think, pretty good allies of the governor, certainly in the campaign, but also in a lot of our legislation. But she kind of came out swinging at the legislature a little bit, which is, I think, strategically a mistake. We need to work together and I hope we will work together. I certainly want to work together with the governor on a lot of initiatives that I think could really help central New York.

GR: Well, I guess in that sense, thinking back a couple decades and maybe even more, it seems like beating up on the legislature is kind of a standard thing that governors in New York state do right?

RM: Yeah, I guess I had hoped with Hochul that she was a little more. I mean, she has been collaborative with the legislature on a number of things, but rhetorically, she was a little bit more willing to own that because we can do so much if we work together.

GR: So let's let's think about the budget, which is where obviously the big ideas and whatever ideas are being put out there have to manifest themselves in terms of money. She said in her budget address that the state can't keep spending like there's no tomorrow. I think that was her words. And nonetheless, the budget that she proposed does set a new record, I believe. Are we in this budget, do you think, seeing some effort on her part to turn a ship or make a course correction, or are we slowing the acceleration? What's the right metaphor for seeing the big picture here?

RM: Well, I think the big picture actually is that all year long we have been hearing that this budget was going to involve major cuts, that we were going to have an $8 billion deficit and then a $4 billion deficit. And all of a sudden there is no deficit when push comes to shove in this budget, which is a good thing because we don't want to have to be cutting back some of the things that we have worked so hard to put in place. So honestly, it's I think, yes, there will be some slowing down because we're not getting the kind of funding that we were getting from the federal government as pandemic relief in particular. But in general, this budget is essentially holding the line. There are a few things where I know that we will be fighting as a legislature to restore some things that she has cut. For my part, the clean water infrastructure cut in half. I mean, it has been it has been generous in the past, and I don't think anybody thought that would go on forever. But from $500 million down to $250 million, when every single municipality I talked to has issues with their water and sewer infrastructure. And this is expensive. And the more we have global warming and flooding and a lot of the pressures that municipalities are seeing on their water systems, we can't retrench, I don't think, in that area. That's one, for example, where I think we're going to be fighting.

GR: Do you expect problems with the education funding? Because that, I understand, was something that was at least cut back a lot from the previous couple budgets.

RM: So it's not an absolute cut. It’s a, my understanding and I haven't had time to really look through the details of it, is trying to shift the way foundation aid is funded. For a very long time, there was a hold harmless provision in foundation aid where school districts that were already overfunded still got increases year after year because I think it was the politically expedient thing to do, but it wasn't the right thing to do because there were other districts that were severely underfunded and the funding should have gone to those districts. And, you know, there are some Long Island districts that are very wealthy, some of the wealthiest in the country, and were continuing to get large increases under foundation aid for a long time. I'm I don't have a problem with trying to redistribute that. The place where I'm most concerned is with our rural districts and we do as Chair of the Commission on Rural Resources, but also as someone who represents a lot of small rural school districts, many of them are seeing cuts as well. And we've been hearing from them. And some of those cuts are because their enrollments are down, but their costs aren't down. They still have to have classroom teachers, even if there are fewer kids in the class, they still have to have all the services that they have. And so I think we will be looking hard at how she has the rethought foundation aid in some of those situations.

GR: With that belt-tightening, I guess, is one way to put it, when in the or at least, as you say, sort of strategically rethinking how the aid is distributed. When you say wealthier school districts, is that going to percolate down to some of the wealthier suburbs of Syracuse, do you think, in terms of changing what they were getting?

RM: It could, it could. But, you know, as the chair of the committee on our smaller cities, our upstate cities along the thruway corridor perennially rate among the cities in the country with the highest child poverty. Syracuse came in number two in the country this year. And the schools that have to deal with very concentrated poverty, that is extremely costly. They need a lot of staff who are helping kids, who have got learning disabilities, kids who don't speak English, kids who have trauma in their family and neighborhood lives, and or who just aren't getting, you know, dental care or vision care, all of those things. And the costs are very high. And I think it makes sense to invest in making sure that kids everywhere can succeed. So, yes, I think, you know, I will be pushing to make sure that our that those places where poverty has been concentrated get the kind of investments that they deserve.

GR: We've only got about 3 minutes left. I want to try to squeeze another question about the budget and then ask you something about the legislative session more generally. There was another piece of the proposed budget that the media really picked up on, which was the proposal to spend two and a half billion dollars to house and feed new migrants here that have been arriving here, including 500 million from the state reserve allocation. So what what are your reactions to that?

RM: Well, what are our alternatives? Honestly? I mean, these are people who come to New York who, you know, are going through the asylum process right or, you know, they've followed the rules so far they need a place to live. They need to be able to get to the point where they can get a job, make money, support their families. We also need more people in New York state, we've been complaining about the decline in our population for a long time. So what we find with refugees who come to this region, who have been coming for decades to this region, it takes them a little while to get settled. And then they become entrepreneurs, they become community leaders, They become very hardworking citizens or or, you know, permanent residents. And they contribute a lot to our communities. So I think that upfront investment is necessary.

GR: That's interesting, seeing that as an investment. Certainly, I can see what you're talking about in the city of Syracuse, thinking about all the different groups of different kinds of refugees that have been resettled here. Well, let's think about the legislative session. Are there things that you anticipate the legislature pushing, taking the lead on that are contained in the governor's State of the State?

RM: I was disappointed that she completely left out our waste reduction efforts, whether it's the bottle bill that I carry that would expand the bottle bill, increase the deposit, include a lot more beverages in the bottle bill, the extended producer responsibility. We're seeing a moment when Seneca Meadows Landfill is trying to expand in spite of a lot of opposition from people who live in the Finger Lakes, but also people who have trucks just plowing through their communities with trash from New York City. We've got to put a lot of effort, more effort than we are putting into reducing waste. And I'm sad that she didn't put that in. On the housing front. I have a lot. She had some proposals, but they all had to do with New York City. And I have a lot of legislation that I am working on and and really hoping to pass that would make it easier to build affordable housing here in central New York and upstate in general. So those are some areas where we're going to be working really hard.

GR: Well, we'll have to check back in with you as the session winds down to see how you fared and those things, they sound like important initiatives. That was State Senator Rachel May. Senator May, thanks so much again for taking the time to talk with me.

RM: Thank you, Grant.

GR: We're continuing our consideration of Governor Hochul’s State of the State address, and then her subsequently proposed budget, also looking toward the upcoming legislative session. We’ll now hear from Republican Assemblyman and Minority Leader Will Barclay. He represents the 120th Assembly District. Leader Barclay, welcome back to the program. Always good to see you again.

Assemblyman Will Barclay: Well, it’s good to be on the program. As always, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to be interviewed by you.

GR: Oh great. Well, thanks for making the time. So let me just sort of follow what I did with Senator May in the top half of the program and we'll work our way through the State of the State and the budget. And let me start with the State of the State. The Governor, it seemed to most folks who heard this seemed to pull in her wings a bit in terms of proposed initiatives and the ambition of them, and particularly concerning affordable housing, for instance. Was that your sense of where the governor was going this time? And what's your view of that?

WB: Yeah, I would agree. It was a very staid speech. I don't think there are any kind of revolutionary proposals by the governor. Actually, her State of the State and her budget address were relatively similar. And you may be surprised to hear the script, but I actually was pleased with the message that the governor gave. I think finally a Democrat in Albany has recognized that we had some serious problems, that all New Yorkers were worried about, problems like crime, problems like affordability, problems like outmigration, things that I had been, I've been talking about my conference has been talking about for years. I was pleased the governor has recognized that these are serious problems. I think the question is ultimately, you know, what her solutions are and a recognition of why we got into those problems in the first place.

GR: Yeah, I want to come back to a couple of those things. Well, you mentioned crime. One of the things that I noticed others noticed is she did, seemed to tack a bit to the right on crime and criminal justice. Was there anything in particular there that you liked or that you still have concerns about?

WB: Well, yes. Again, I like the recognition that crime is a problem. Certainly, the shoplifting, smash and grab, as I guess is called now, has been a problem. She mentioned how crime rates are down, and that's true, and I'm happy that crime rates are down. But overall crime is still up, I think something like 33% since 2019. I don't think it's a mystery of why this is happening. We don't hold criminals accountable, unfortunately, anymore. And that's serious crimes that are down, which, again, is great. And I don’t want to deny that that's not good news. Those weren't cashless bail-eligible crimes in the first place. So when I point to the problems that we have with raising age with the bail reform or cashless bail clean slate, you know, these are all the policies we put in place over the last several years. As a result of these policies, we see crime rates have increased. So again, I'm pleased that there's recognition and I'm pleased that she wants to do something about it. And I'll be a willing partner. And I know our conference be a willing partner as long as we're serious about what we're trying to do. And ultimately, I happen to believe that you got to hold criminals accountable. You can't just have a rotating system where people get arrested and put right back on the street. And unfortunately, that's what these, you know, the past policies have caused. And in order to fix that, we're going to pull back on those policies.

GR: Now, let's think about the budget. You mentioned they were very similar, State of the State address and the budget. One of the things the governor said is “The state can't keep spending like there's no tomorrow.” But at the same time, correct me if I'm wrong, the budget did set another record. So is this, what are we seeing here? I'm trying to find the right metaphor for thinking of how to place this. One is – this is the beginning of a course correction. Another one is– we're just letting up on the accelerator pedal, but we're still giving gas to the car. How would we consider this?

WB: I think the cliche that I've been using is ‘spending like drunken sailors,’ but she didn’t go that far. But yeah, again, I'm pleased she’s recognized that we can't continue. Over the last five years, we've increased spending in New York state by $60 billion. And I had some staff in Albany look at this. And I think that's numbers. Something like bigger than two-thirds of all the other states' total budget. So clearly that was not a sustainable course. She did lower spending. I think it's now at 4.4%, which is a step in the right direction. With inflation, I think, you know, we're getting to the right numbers. We just can't continue to spend like we have over the last few years. So I'm glad that there's a recognition of that.

GR: And as part of her budget proposal, she included two and a half billion dollars to house and feed new migrants and added as part of that a $500 million from the state's fiscal reserves. What are your thoughts about that?

WB: Well, it's unfortunate. I don't know, what we have this right to shelter, what we're dealing with, the influx of migrants. You know, she mentioned the numbers that I think they're moving something like 10,000 migrants out of shelters a month. But they're increasing by 13,000 are coming in. So it's clearly a losing battle. And I think it just illustrates that unfortunate New Yorkers have to pay for, you know, the Democrats in Washington, particularly the Biden Administration's failure to secure our borders. I was happy that she said she was going to go to Washington and advocate for federal money, which I do think the federal government should be responsible for these costs. But I also advocate for a more secure border, and I would join her in doing that. And she did try to put some of the blame on the Republicans in Congress and maybe there's some to go there. I do think immigration reform needs a bipartisan solution. But that being said, the administration has control over the southern border and clearly it's not secure because people are coming in by droves.

GR: Senator May had a somewhat different take on this and looked at this in terms of something that you mentioned earlier, which is concerns about the state losing population and sort of saw the migrants as well, this is one way we can do something about this and noted how refugees in the city of Syracuse, for example, have added to both the culture and the economy there. And so she views all this money as kind of an investment in the future. Is that is is that a fair way to live?

WB: I mean, I find that as I would use tongue in cheek, sometimes I think that Governor Abbott's done more to increase New York's population or fix New York's outmigration population than any Democrat in Albany. So that's funny that she's spinning the idea that somehow this is a positive. I'm a pro-immigration Republican. I do believe in immigration, but I feel very strongly it ought to be legal immigration and not illegal immigration. This is a failure, again, by the federal government. If we need more people, let's have an honest policy debate about letting more people into the country through legal means, not through illegal migration.

GR: Well, now part of the budget also has to do with, as it always does, with school funding. And if I understand this correctly, she's proposing a change in school funding to allow the state to not always keep all towns at the same or more level of aid. And so the school districts that were particularly well funded may see less aid, and that's in order to sustain the funding for other schools that are needier. What is your view of the change and the school aid that's in her budget?

WB: I have to look at this closer and see, you know, everything in politics is local. So I want to understand how that's going to affect the school districts in my area. Unfortunately, many of them are low-wealth school districts. So they're the ones that are in desperate need of the aid. So I can't speak directly on how that's going to do it, although I again, here I am. I could be complimentary of a Democrat in the governor. I do think she recognizes that we can't continue school aid spending at the rate we've been spending. Something like we increased a six or $7 billion over the last couple of years. We simply just don't have the means to do that. So the idea that she's looking at ways to make our spending more efficient, that is driving the money where it's most needed, I'm open to that. And I do think, unfortunately, we just can't continue to increase spending the way we've been doing.

GR: So what is the legislature going to do with all of this and what might it also do on its own? Are there things that you would anticipate this year in the upcoming session that the legislature would be pushing and taking the lead on where the governor didn't really say anything or did not push for things?

WB: Well, first of all, I think let's just go back to criminal justice and crime and what she's proposed. I think she's going to have trouble getting any of that through the legislature. Unfortunately, my colleagues don't want to recognize that this is an issue and they don't want to recognize that the fact that some of the proposals, the ones I've mentioned before that they passed are contributing factors to this. So to pull back on any of those or just increase penalties. You know something that we haven’t looked at, say for people that have shoplift multiple times, you can aggregate those crimes so they can be charged with more serious penalties. They haven't shown any willingness to even address that. So I think that's going to be very challenging. In order to get that done, she's going to have to spend a lot of political capital. As seen unfortunately in Albany, what happens sometimes money is used as that political capital, so if we can get some sort of reform on crime, maybe she's going to have to spend more at schools. And that's really where we got into some of these predicaments. We never had any kind of real, you know, slowing down on our spending. And this, again, a little bit off on the spending, too, Grant as you kind of indicated, we're still spending a lot of money. We are. It's 200, I think her proposal is $233 billion, which is massive. But I've always said people often ask me, well, where would you cut? And we don't have to necessarily cut anything. Really, we have to slow the rate of growth of our spending. And we just got to get back down to more realistic terms. I mean, the last two years we're at 10% or 8%, and that's well beyond inflation, well beyond our means to be able to spend. So anyways, who knows? That always happens. A governor usually comes in a bit lower than what the legislature and then through negotiations you'll see increase in spending. Maybe there'll be some trade-off on policy. One thing the Assembly Senate majority has been against is putting any policy in the budget, which I can normally agree with, but generally the policy the Governor wants to put in the budget is something that I can support and she can't get it through otherwise stand alone because of the Democratic majorities in both houses.

GR: Yeah, the budget does act as kind of Christmas tree or however whatever metaphor we want for a lot of different things. We've we've only got about a couple of minutes left. I want to squeeze in a couple more questions if I can, but is your caucus in particular? I get a sense of the kinds of things that your caucus is going to be pushing back against and wants to make sure that are taken seriously regarding budget crime and so on. But is there anything kind of new initiative that your caucus will be trying to push as an idea to get the legislature to take up?

WB: We'll think about it. We'll talk about any new ideas. But usually, you know, I think going back to the three biggest issues that are concerning to New Yorkers is outmigration, affordability and crime. And I think there's things that we can do on affordability that we'll continue to push. You know, some are relatively obvious, like lowering taxes. Well, we've implemented let's take climate change policy in New York that is costing us billions of dollars and the cost benefit of that spending has not been demonstrated by anybody. So we're going to just keep raising those types of issues to show, you know, why are we doing this? Is this a good way to spend our money? And try to point out where we think it's been wasteful and leading to the unaffordability that we have, unfortunately, in New York state.

GR: Well, you've left me with just enough time to squeeze in one question about national politics, so I'm going to do that. You and I are talking before the New Hampshire primaries, after the Iowa caucuses for the Republican Party, at least. Where do you see this at this point? Is the Trump tide unstoppable? Does Nikki Haley have a chance? What's your sense of the terrain right now?

WB: Well, it certainly looks like Trump's going to win it, although I see the numbers in New Hampshire. He's ahead by, you know, a much smaller margin than he was in Iowa. I think whoever it's going to be the Republican nominee, I think there's rich, fertile ground for victories for, whether it's Nikki Haley or whether it's Trump or anyone else, because the President unfortunately for him this so deeply unpopular, so, you know, I'll support whoever the Republican nominee is and looks like it's going to be Trump at this time. I think probably, you know, I don't think long short of it, it looks like Trump's going to win. You know, maybe if Iowa turned out a little differently, someone could say that maybe another candidate has a chance. But, you know, all the polling you know, whatever showed ultimately that victory margin, I suspect, is going to be the same in New Hampshire.

GR: We'll have to leave it there. That was Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay. Leader Barclay, as always, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

WB: Yeah, thank you.

GR: 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.