The 2019 legislative session in Albany promises to yield some important new policies for the state, including major reforms to elections, campaigns, ethics, and healthcare. This week, Grant Reeher is joined by Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli (D-Syracuse) and Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse) to discuss this year's legislative session.
Reeher: Given the political landscape right now in the state, and also the early signals that the governor has been giving in some of his speeches, what would you expect would be the things that are going to top the legislative agenda this year?
Magnarelli: Well, I think, first of all, the things that top the agenda every year revolve around the budget, so I think that’s the most important thing as we start a year. However, I think there’s also a lot of things that have been bouncing around the Legislature for a number of years that I think now that we have a Democratic Senate as well as a Democratic Assembly, I think we’re going to be able to move those, including the Reproductive Health Act, some gun safety proposals that the governor has made, voting reforms, hopefully closing the LLC loophole finally and older things … Legalizing marijuana might come up this year.
Reeher: That we’re hearing a lot of.
Magnarelli: Sports betting may come up this year. The list goes on and on. So, there’s a lot of things that we’ve been considering for many, many years that I think will come to the floor as we go along. But first things first. We have to have a budget.
Reeher: Sen. May, let me ask you. You ran as an insurgent challenger to the status quo. That was clearly what your campaign was about. Does the agenda that Assemblyman Magnarelli just described, does that sound about right to you as a start toward a new status quo?
May: Absolutely. I ran partly to make sure that the Legislature could pass a lot of bills that have been passing in the Assembly for years, and so, I’m hopeful that we will see that happen this year.
Reeher: Is there anything in the list the assemblyman put forward that would be most important to you in terms of thinking about the group of progressive Democrats that came into the Senate and really turned the Senate completely Democratic in terms of majority control and also, I think, shifted the center of weight politically in that body as well? Is there anything there that’s most important to you that you want to see passed?
May: There are a couple of things that we’re talking about trying to bring up as early as possible, and the Reproductive Health Act is one. The election reform is very important to everybody who was newly elected this year, but also to a lot of the people in the Senate who’ve been there a long time. And I’ve talked with Dustin Czarny, our Democratic elections commissioner here in Onondaga County, and one of the things he said is if we want to implement anything that changes the election calendar in 2019, we have to do it in January, basically, because the calendar gets backed up. Every piece of the calendar depends on the next piece, and so, I think there’s going to be pressure to do things like early voting, to try to bring them up early.
Reeher: Assemblyman Magnarelli, on that point, you had a pretty extensive list there. Which one of those things do you think have the highest probability to actually get passed? Or do all of them?
Magnarelli: I think they all have a very good possibility of getting passed right now with the Senate having become Democratic. But I think the Reproductive Health Act, as the senator mentioned, I think that probably will be the first thing that we pass. I think it’s been long overdue. I think there’s a lot of strength and force behind it, and I think that’s something that we’re going to want to do. And the voting reforms, I think that most of those, many of those will happen. I think it’s about time … Early voting, automatic registration, I think that has a shot. Merging the state and federal primaries, I think those are good things that can be done relatively quickly.
Reeher: There’s also this piece that, it seems to me, is likely to be on the agenda of trying to provide more teeth and ethics and oversight of the body itself. And there’s some proposals to bolster that and take some of that outside of the political sphere if possible. So, do you see much happening in that area?
Magnarelli: I’m very confused about that in the sense that the things that had been brought up and why people have gone to jail from the Legislature, Senate, Assembly, it wasn’t because they violated their ethics – of course [they did]. But what it was was criminal.
Reeher: And federal charges.
Magnarelli: But my argument is that we do have an apparatus to take care of that. It’s called the criminal justice system. We have district attorneys. We have an attorney general. We have a federal government. If people are breaking the law, they should be punished. They should go to jail, and I have absolutely no sympathy for any of them. And that’s the bottom line. But ethics is a different ball game, and doing the right thing within the House and following the rules, that’s what the ethics committees, etc., were all about. When we’re talking about criminality, that’s a different ball game. And I don’t believe any ethics laws are going to change that. If you’re going to take a bag full of money from somebody to do something, you’re going to do that no matter what the ethics laws are because you’re breaking the criminal laws. And my feeling is that we should bolster the people that are looking into those things in terms of if there are investigations or if they need money to look into them. I don’t have a problem with any of that as long as it’s done on a criminal basis. It’s a great buzzword for a lot of organizations to keep harping on ethics when really, what we’re talking about is criminality.
Reeher: Senator, how do you see this issue of ethics within the body and what the limits are here?
May: I’m going to disagree some about ethics. As a woman, I have to say sexual harassment is a real problem, and it’s a way of wielding power. And it doesn’t necessarily cross the line into criminality, but it makes a big difference in the way power is organized and wielded with the body. And so, it disturbs me greatly that there have been sexual harassment accusations that never seemed to have been investigated, or if they were, there was nothing reported out about it. And I think we need to get past that, especially now that women make up a much larger portion of the legislature. I think we need to see that we are being treated fairly and that when we are not, we can bring that forward and have it be something that is investigated. So, ethics at that level, just how interpersonal and inter-group power dynamics are wielded within the body, that is really important that we get that right.
Magnarelli: I don’t disagree with that. I do believe that our ethics rules right now would take care of that. Whether they were implemented and used in the past is something that I can agree with the senator on. They haven’t been, and they should be. And I do believe that our Ethics Committee chair in the Assembly is a woman this time around, and I have a feeling that we’re going to see these changes happen.
Reeher: Sen. May, one budget issue that I think might create some of those issues … particularly between the governor and progressive Democrats, is education and the formula that’s actually used to fund different school districts … The reason why I wanted to put this question to you is this is one of the issues you ran on, the funding for poorer school districts in Syracuse in particular, and you represent both poor districts and well-off school districts that are in your Senate district … So, how optimistic are you that Syracuse is going to see some kind of substantial increase in its school funding this year?
May: I’m fairly optimistic mainly because so many of us came in on this platform as well, and I think we are going to have a united voice in the Senate, pushing for a real change in the ways schools are funded. In terms of getting the additional $2 billion that the state school leaders have indicated are necessary, if we have a $3 billion gap to fill, that’s going to be a big challenge. And so, I think you may be right that, in the near term, it’s going to be a matter of moving the chips around on the table more than getting a huge new infusion, but we’re going to push for it because that’s what we came here to do. And I cannot tell you how many people, not just in the Syracuse City School District, but in districts in more rural areas where they also are dramatically underfunded and in the districts where they have the funding that would be allocated anyway, they recognize that school funding for everyone is crucial. And the more we rely on property taxes to fund education, the more unequal and the more of a drag on local economies it’s going to be. And so, the state needs to get this right. And so, I’m optimistic that there is a critical mass of people in the Senate for sure and, I believe, in the Assembly as well who are going to be fighting this fight and that we will see changes.
Reeher: Assemblyman, how do you see this?
Magnarelli: I’m hopeful. I don’t disagree with the statement the senator has just made, and I’d love to see the formula change so that we start getting more of the available funds to the districts that need them the most. That’s what we’ve been fighting for, I don’t want to say how many decades now, but … I don’t disagree. And I’m hopeful that we’re going to move that a little bit. And I don’t know if that’s going to mean, as the senator said, that there’s going to be billions and billions of dollars more in the education budget because where are you going to get it from? And that’s the problem that we deal with every winter.