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State Senator Dave Valesky on the Campbell Conversations

State Senator Dave Valesky (D-Oneida)

The New York State budget process was different this year than years past. There was a new “man in the room,” and there were many significant policy proposals attached to it; some were incorporated and some were tabled for later consideration.  On this week’s edition of the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher breaks down that process with State Senator Dave Valesky, who argues that the process was actually better in many ways.  Valesky also comments on his Independent Democratic Conference, its new role in the Senate, and its future prospects. 

Interview highlights

Grant Reeher: Without Sheldon Silver, was the budget negotiation importantly different, was the process importantly different this year?

David Valesky: I think it was. I certainly don’t serve in the Assembly and I have no role in the Assembly’s negotiation process. What I experienced and what I have heard from members of the Assembly, almost to a person, they indicated particularly the Assembly’s democratic majority, that that was a much more open process, that the new Speaker of the Assembly, Carl Heastie, took a much more inclusionary tactic toward negotiations in terms of Assembly positions on the budget. So yes, I think that was a significant difference.

GR: You’ve often talked in the past, when you first ran, of New York having a dysfunctional state political system, a dysfunctional legislature. Do you think the budget process was more functional this year?

DV: I do, in many aspects, certainly that particular issue pertaining to the Assembly. But I think in terms of Senate, and more specifically the governor himself, New York State has been much maligned for the ‘three men in a room’ or ‘four men in a room’ budget negotiation concept. It was very different this year. The governor himself, on a handful of occasions first of all, took the rather unprecedented step of going and visiting with the majority conferences of both the Senate and the Assembly and having long conversations with them, number one. Number two, many of the aspects of the budget the governor directly negotiated with individual members of the Senate—specifically of the ethics reform package. Senator Skelos is the temporary President of the Senate and the leader of the Senate. The governor did take that rather extraordinary tactic is negotiating some major pieces of the budget with rank and file members of the Senate which is a big improvement.

GR: You have been a big proponent of ethics reform from the beginning in your races. I wanted to ask you a question about the legislative ethics piece that was passed along with the budget. There was a compromise struck on ethics reform. There is a summary of that set of provisions that I want to read to you and to our listeners that come from news service reports, and then ask you to comment on it. Here is the summary on it: Lawmakers will be required to disclose their income from outside jobs. If they are attorneys, they will also have to identify big clients with some exemptions for family law cases. Other changes prevent abuse of legislative stipends and prevent personal use of campaign funds. The budget also expands the pension forfeiture law and puts in place new oversight for lawmakers travel expenses. The budget creates a commission that would study raising lawmakers pay, though no pay hike could take effect until 2017. How significant are these changes in comparison with past reforms?

DV: I think that they are significant. I think that the challenge when we talk with ethics reform packages ‘can it ever be enough, is it ever enough.’ It would seem to me the question is ‘how could we ever get to a point where it is enough?’ I think these changes are significant, no question about it. In terms of cracking down on the per diem abuses that have been seen in the legislature. Certainly the disclosure of outside income is critically important. Some of the cases that have been brought in recent years with the legislative corruption certainly indicate that that has been necessary. That having been said, that was a difficult issue. It does not affect me, but certainly those legislators who are attorneys, and the notion of attorney client privilege, those are sensitive issues and sensitive topics. I really believe, and have taken the position, that the time is going to have to come sooner or later, that we have to have a serious conversation about what I will use the legal definition of, a ‘full time legislature.’ Now, I hesitate to use that because I don’t want listeners to think that we’re not. Trust me, we work full-time and then some. But the legal definition, we are technically a part-time legislature meaning we can earn income outside of our state government salary, as being a member of the Senate or the Assembly. Congress, as you know a number of years ago, eliminated outside income and went to a full-time legislature.

GR: And they make almost $200,000.

DV: Yes they do, they do. No other state has the model that Congress follows, a full-time legislature. But if we are really going to do everything we can to completely eliminate the influence of outside money in the process, then it seems to me that sooner or later we have to have the conversation about eliminating outside income for legislatures.

GR: Is that what you would regard as the next frontier of ethics reform?

DV: I would certainly think so. I think that’s a very difficult place to get to for lots of reasons but I would think we will continue to see more and more attention on that particular issue, pressure on that particular issue from good government groups and other, to give that serious consideration.

GR: In this budget, how did Central New York fair?

DV: I think we faired very well. There were issues that were critically important; many of them generated a lot of conversation. One of the most significant is the issue of the Centro public transportation here and what would have been some pretty drastic service reductions. We work together as a central New York delegation to ensure that we directed additional resources from the state of New York to make sure that that doesn’t happen. So I think from a local perspective, that may have been one of the most significant issues. A couple of others just quickly: a significant increase in school aid—every year that’s an important issue for the city of Syracuse school district. It was a very significant increase and many other districts as well, made great progress in moving finally toward the elimination of what is known as the ‘gap elimination adjustment’ that has been particularly crippling to the many school districts. And the other thing in the area of economic development, the settlement funds of $5 billion, we authorized the governor’s economic development regional competition, a $1.5 billion dollar Upstate revitalization fund which I think will be very, very significant and I look forward to participating in this regions plan in the competition.

GR: What do you think about this effort on the part of some activist parents to get parents to hold their kids out of school during the standardized tests that are part of the school evaluations and the teacher evaluations that are a part of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

DV: The ‘Opt Out movement’ is what you’re describing. It certainly has picked up steam…

GR: I’ve seen more bumper stickers, anyway.

DV: And lawn signs, as if it were a political campaign, in the last couple of weeks. That is certainly the right of every parent, to refrain from having their children, grade three through eight, participate in those standardized tests. I don’t think that the legislature would change that in any way shape or form. But the fact of the matter is, there are and potentially will be real ramifications toward that, most significantly if that movement accelerates to a point and reaches a critical mass, then it is entirely possible that federal funding to public schools in New York State could be in jeopardy. Like anything, there are risks and rewards, and that is one of the risks that will come with any accelerated movement of this opt out effort. 

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.