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Bill Magnarelli and Will Barclay on the Campbell Conversations

Bill Magnarelli / William Barclay
Bill Magnarelli / William Barclay

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with Democratic Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli and Republican Assemblyman Will Barclay on the New York State legislature's current session and Governor Hochul's proposed state budget.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. The New York State legislature has begun another session and Governor Hochul has proposed $227 billion budget. Some say she's been weakened by recent political developments. What can we expect this year? Joining me to discuss this are New York State Assemblyman Will Barclay and Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli. Assemblyman Barclay, a Republican, represents the 120th Assembly District and is the minority leader of the chamber. Assemblyman Magnarelli, a Democrat, represents the 129th Assembly District and serves as chair of the Transportation Committee. Assemblyman Magnarelli, leader Barclay, welcome back to the program. It's good to have you both here.

Bill Magnarelli: Good to be here.

Will Barclay: Thanks for having me on.

GR: All right, so let me just start with something I mentioned in my intro about the governor. You know, a reporter called me the other day to ask me how damaged and weakened I thought Governor Hochul had become, given the election results in November, and also the more recent rejection of Hector LaSalle as chief judge of the Court of Appeals, who would have been, in essence, New York's chief justice. And the presumption behind the reporter's question was that she had been significantly weakened. And I noted the governor's stronger hand in the budgeting process and said maybe it's too early to bury her politically. But, Assemblyman Magnarelli I wanted to ask you this, you know, you were in the same party as the governor, the judicial nomination was defeated by the most liberal wing of your party, as I understand it. Do you think your colleagues on the left do sense a weakness in Governor Hochul’s position that they can use to try to get even more progressive measures passed into law this session?

BM: That goes in a million different directions, what you just said, okay?

GR: Okay, well pick one.

BM: Well, I will. First of all, anyone who thinks that a governor of the state of New York is weakened by one vote hasn't been around for 23 years, okay? It's just not true. And as the budget cycle goes forward, you know, I think we'll see, you know, what the governor is going to do or what she's not going to do. Now, I’m not saying it's not a setback or something that she was happy to see, but on the other hand, to write her off, as you know, a governor with no clout kind of thing doesn't make any sense to me.

GR: Okay, sure, yeah.

BM: And also, when you get into the budget, it's a different ballgame. You know, and I think that she holds a lot of cards. So it's a negotiation that's going to still have to be done. Do I think that the liberal wing of the party is going to do more, try to get more things done? Of course it will. I mean, that's what it does. But on the other hand, I'm not sure that liberal wing, even though it may be very strong in the Senate, I'm not so sure that it's that strong in the Assembly to actually push some of these very, very, very liberal, not liberal, progressive. I'm liberal, they're progressive. I think that's a difference, there's a difference there. I'm not sure they can do that.

GR: Okay, got it, I understand. And that was my sense of the governor's strength, too, by the way. This is what the reporter from Governing Magazine was posing to me. Leader Barclay, you know, similar question. I mean, do you have a different take on this? Do you sense that the governor, A: is politically weak at the moment or B: that, you know, there's going to be a raft of more progressive or further to the left proposals coming down the pike?

WB: Well, first of all, it’s great to be here and thank you for having me on your show. And I always like sharing time with my good friend and colleague Bill Magnarelli, so thank you for that. You know, one thing I find of interest, what the assemblyman said was the idea that the Senate is more liberal bodied versus the, I guess, more reactionary body is the assembly, which, you know, I've been around long enough to think that the Assembly used to be the far off leftist body and the Senate was more the staid, maybe centrist body. So it's interesting how things have changed. And I don't disagree really with his analysis. I think it's terrible that Judge LaSalle was voted down in committee. I think (it) happens that the full Senate ought to vote on that. And it seems like it was done simply on ideological basis, not necessarily on his judge credentials. And I think that's a bad precedent that they're setting over that. Whether that weakens the governor going forward, I would agree with my colleague that time will tell, obviously, for a single vote with any legislation the governor is trying to get passed she's going to have, you know, people here and there oppose yes or no on it. The budget is a much different animal where, you know, there's so many things involved in the state budget that you can round up people that might support it, wouldn't support it otherwise because there's things in the budget that they support differently. So I think the verdict’s still out there. Interestingly, with a lot of stuff the governor's doing, particularly when it comes to criminal justice reforms where we haven't been aligned, where in the past, a lot of my colleagues as Republicans actually support it, so it'll be curious. You know, the super majorities in both houses limit this a little bit. But I will be curious and willing to work with the governor to try to get some of these things that I think are desperately needed in New York State.

GR: Yeah, I noticed that that that was part of what she was pushing to, the sort of reexamination of the bail reform again. And I sort of thought that that might run into some of the same problems that the LaSalle nomination ran into. So it would be interesting to see how that plays out. Well, you mentioned people having different reasons for supporting the budget, and I wanted to turn to that now. The governor's proposed budget, it's $227 billion, I believe that's a new record. Correct me if I'm wrong, but Assemblyman Magnarelli, are there things that you're seeing in the budget that you think bode particularly well for central New York, things that you're excited about there?

BM: Yeah, there are. I mean, transportation wise, I think we'll do a little better than what she's proposing because it's a first proposal. And that proposal starts where we were last year, basically. And so I don't feel like I've got to redo everything all over again, so I'm optimistic in that area. The housing proposal is, I think, phenomenal, and especially with the things that are coming down the pipe as far as Central New York is concerned with Micron and the influx of jobs, which is going to be an influx of people in families. So housing is huge. We do have a housing shortage in Central New York as well as across New York State. Ours is going to be exacerbated by these new things that are happening. And, you know, I look at them as is as, you know, potentially good things for the area in terms of even more jobs and more progress in that regard, so that's good. Child care is huge, absolutely huge. I think watching what happened during COVID and how families, you know, people who had to go to work, emergency type of responders, people in hospitals, et cetera, and the lack of childcare you know, the shortcomings there were exposed along with many, many others. But I think childcare is now starting to be addressed. Maybe not enough, maybe not enough, maybe even this isn't enough, but at least it's a big step forward. So I see, you know, right there, those are kind of a three positives that I see going forward.

GR: I want to get Leader Barclay's reaction to what he's seeing in the budget hearings. First, I need to tell people you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm speaking with New York State Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli and Assembly Minority Leader Will Barclay. Leader Barclay, let's talk about the affordable housing piece first and then get to your more general reactions. My understanding is the main mechanism right now that's being put out there, or one of them, is the ability of the state to in a sense, override zoning restrictions at the more local level in order to make sure that there are low income and mixed income housing units and also that they can be more densely packed if necessary. If that's not right, correct me, but is that - oftentimes Republicans have more concerns about local control. So I wanted to get your take on it, go ahead.

WB: I certainly do have a concern about local control. This is a trend we've seen over the last decade or so where the state is taking more and more power away from the local government. I saw it firsthand with the Article 7. That was for siting large scale industrial energy generation where it used to have local say in it and we passed a law that you no longer have local say. So now the state can basically site industrial wind and solar wherever they like around the state. So this is, in my mind, just another addition. Now, for the housing is not as acute in upstate just because we have more open area where you're able to probably build affordable housing. Where it really comes into play I think, unfortunately, is in the suburbs where a lot of zoning has single family housing. This potential change where the state would be able to take over the zoning will allow multi-unit dwellings and really could change the face of various neighborhoods. So I do think that's concerning. I always prefer local control over their state or federal control. And so I think those legislators that are concerned about that have a very valid point. Just generally on the housing, we do need new housing in New York. But I would submit to anybody that the reason we don't have growth in housing is because it's actually state government is mandating so much private business and private builders that they don't want to take the risk and the expense of building additional housing. I would prefer that we maybe lift some of those very difficult laws to build anything in New York and you might see private business flourishing to be able to build something rather than trying to dictate it down from the state level.

GR: And also just briefly on this, the size of the budget, $227 billion is first of all, is that a record? And second of all, does that does that give you any kind of concern?

WB: Well, it definitely is, it is a record. Last year we were at 222 and now we're up to 227, albeit it's not as huge of an increase in the budget that we've seen over the last few years. But it's still pretty substantial. And when you, as I've talked on this show and many other shows, when you compare it to other states in the country, you realize that this probably is not sustainable. I mean, take Florida, for example, which I think their budgets, something like $110 billion, when we're looking at 227, they have 20% more population of what New York has on a per capita basis. We're way outspending any other states in the country and as a result we're seeing people migrate out of New York. There's no doubt. I think we lost 400,000 people just in the last two years. We've lost over a million people in the last decade. I happen to think it's because of the cost of living in New York has gone so high and I don't see anything unfortunately, in this budget that the governor's proposing to provide any relief against these high costs. In fact, I see unfortunately a lot more of the same.

GR: I want to get into exactly that topic, and I want to come back to Assemblyman Magnarelli on that to get his perspective on it. But first, we need to take a break. 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 Assemblyman Bill Magnarelli, chair of the Transportation Committee. And we've been discussing the upcoming legislative session, the governor and the budget. Assemblyman Magnarelli, I wanted to take what leader Barclay said before the break and ask you to respond to that a little bit. And in particular, it is a fact when you look at the recent history of New York State taxing and spending and the Democrats have largely been in control of the policymaking institutions, it does seem to be the case that leaders are content to let New York stay at the top of the spending and taxing list for the 50 states in the nation. And the exact position, whether we're number one or number two or number three, varies with whatever organization is doing the rankings, but we're always right up there. And so I guess the question I wanted to ask you is within your conference, within your party, are there any meaningful discussions about, you know, at some point we have to try to turn the battleship or we don't need to try to turn the battleship? And this is kind of the path we're going to keep going. There is this big question about the state relative to other states. I just wanted to get your perspective on it.

BM: Well, I don't think we think of it in terms of us versus other states.

GR: Okay.

BM: I don't. I don't think we think that we have to turn the battleship. I know it doesn't turn on a dime, but I don't think that that's the case either. I think what we do concern ourselves with and I'm not trying to be a goody goody two shoes here, but we think about the health, welfare and safety of the people that we represent. New York is unique, okay? It's not the same as Florida. It's definitely not the same as Idaho, you know, and it's not the same as a lot of other places across this great United States, it's not, it's different. It's diverse. We have, you know, probably the wealthiest people in the world and also the poorest. And so we have to deal with what we have, and so education, health care, those are things that we put at the top of our list and what we have to do to make sure that people are getting good health care, good education, hopefully good transportation. And I'm not saying everything is perfect. I mean, we've got an awful lot to do in all these spaces. That's what we look at. And so whether we're, you know, the highest taxed or we spend the most, I think the thing that's most important is how are we taking care of the people of the state of New York? And I think that's the thing that moves our conference.

GR: And I wanted to get Leader Barclay in on this, but I want to follow up with you before I do that. And I do want to come back to the health care piece, actually, that you mentioned there. But let me ask you this, it's about the strategy of economic development and the state. And again, you know, this is my impression, so I could be wrong. But it seems to me that one of the main Democratic strategies in approaching economic development in the state is to emphasize the benefit of specific projects that are in turn made possible by tax deals, kind of exceptions to the norm, tax deals to entice particular companies to locate in the state. And so here in central New York, you know, we've already mentioned, Micron, the planned mega complex for chip manufacturing in Clay, that's obviously the trophy fish of a century in that regard. But at the same time, I perceive less of a focus from your party on the general business climate of the state that doesn't get talked about as much. And you know, Florida's been mentioned a couple of times now. I mean, a company that is contemplating relocating to New York from Florida is essentially asking its employees to pay a lot more taxes than they were going to pay before. There are no income taxes in Florida. So I just wonder if you could reflect on, you know, is that kind of approach to economic development, is there something more general that the party is thinking about there?

BM: Well, I think that companies, I think the way we look at it is that businesses look at New York State for different reasons, okay? Some of those reasons may be just our education structure, just the number of potential employees that could be hired within a certain region. So I don't see it all as one way or the other. I know my colleague and his members on the other side of the aisle, I think you're right, they look at business in a different way, in a very general, you know, this is not good for business type of thing. I think we look at it in terms of how do we get more jobs to the everyday people of the state. And I'm not saying that my colleague isn't trying to do the same thing. I think they are. But we're coming at it in a different way. We feel that if we have good education, good housing, good health care, that people are going to want to live here because of the other things that we do have. And we're not the Empire State for nothing. It's a beautiful state from Buffalo to New York City. It's a beautiful state with a lot to offer, you know, and basically good facilities and good care, hopefully, for the people that we represent. And I think that makes a big difference, too.

GR: Yeah, well what you mentioned in terms of the pluses were some of the things that Micron executives mentioned in their decision to locate here, some of the more general things that you talked about.

BM: I think they're going to have a great time in Central New York.

GR: So, Leader Barclay, I do have a different version of this question. But if you're dying to get in on something that Assemblyman Magnarelli said, please do. But let me ask this version of my big picture question here on development and the budget and everything. It seems to me that the Republicans have been very vocal about this problem. You already mentioned declining population, that is something that comes up a lot from Republican members, the declining population relative to other states, perceptions of hostile business climate, unsustainable spending. These are things that you've already mentioned. But it's also my perception that top, top Republican candidates have been reticent about what more specifically to cut beyond saying we got to cut waste and abuse. And I would think you would need, again, if we're going to go back to this turning the battleship, I would think you would need to have something bigger than that to do that. And the thing that always strikes me when I look at it is Medicaid and you guys have been talking about other states, let's take California. I mean, New York is a state that's not that dissimilar from California in terms of its diversity, in terms of having rich and poor people. But per capita, our Medicaid program is twice as expensive as California’s, that's per capita. So I would just think that there would be some Republican gubernatorial candidate would stand up and say, we've got to make, we've got to reign in Medicaid. You know, maybe we don't cover fewer people, but we can't cover as many services or something. But I just, I don't hear that level of specificity from your party members.

WB: Well, yeah. First of all, let me just say, we hear cuts, you know, I often get questions like, well, if you're in charge, what would you cut? You want to cut taxes? You know, you got to do the other side of the ledger, cut spending. You know, I push back a little bit on that. All we have to do is slow the growth of spending. The last two budgets, we've increased, I don’t know last year’s budget but over the year before, it was like a 10% increase. If we brought some, in my mind, some sanity back into our spending, it's not an idea that all of a sudden we have to cut a program by 20% or 30%. So that's one thing I’d say. And certainly we can govern more efficiently, I think than we have. Whether it’s Medicaid, whether it's education, you name it. I don't think how we distribute money necessarily is the most efficient way. And I take schools for instance, you know, I represent a number of low wealth school districts that of course the state needs to come in and have to backfill some of their funding because the property tax level isn't there. There just isn't the property tax that get to the mandates that are put down by the state. So one way to do it is not to drive as much money to higher wealth school districts like in Westchester, like in Nassau County, instead of giving them equal amounts that you were giving to low wealth districts, take that money and give it into (unintelligible), then we wouldn't have to increase school aid by 10% that we're proposing. This is, by the way, the governor's proposal. The legislature hasn't even acted on that. I've never seen it where the legislature cuts something the governor is proposing. Admittedly, I'm not as versed in health care and Medicaid. However, I am assured that, you know, similar things are going on in health care as they are in education. So I think we could be much more efficient in our spending and, you know, waste and fraud, it's nothing to sneeze at. There's been a report out by the comptroller. I think that just unemployment benefits put out during COVID is something like $11 billion worth of fraud in that program. I mean, that is a pretty substantial chunk of change. Now, what could we have done differently? I don't know. But someone has to be held accountable for that type of waste. So I just wouldn’t belittle waste and inefficiencies by any measure because I think those can total up to really a substantial amount of money.

GR: We've got about maybe three or 4 minutes left. And there's another topic I want to squeeze in here, if I can. It's kind of a follow on to this, but it looks at Syracuse on Micron more specifically in terms of affordable housing, which is one of the major themes that the governor has said she wants to address and Assemblyman Magnarelli you stressed how important this was earlier. And so I want to ask you this question first, Assemblyman Magnarelli about this. If you take the pressure, I think that Micron is going to put on housing with the high wages that are going to be paid, which are great. And you combine that with the redevelopment that's going to take place regarding whatever happens ultimately to I-81 there's going to be a major redevelopment of the area around where the highway is and Blueprint 15 and the city of Syracuse have been heavily part of this. It seems to me that that's a recipe for some serious gentrification. You're going to redevelop this area that has largely public housing already. There's already a concern about gentrification. Then you add Micron in, which is a great thing, but nonetheless very high salaries to a lot of young people that are probably going to want to buy and rent downtown. So are you concerned about the poor residents of Syracuse getting driven out?

BM: Professor, let me tell you, that has been my concern from day one. And anyone who has listened to me on your show or others about 81… I lost. This is not the way I wanted to go with 81. I think it's a mistake. And one of the reasons is because I don't believe people have been very honest with what is going to happen to downtown. I do believe there will be a gentrification. Now having said that, okay, and put that aside, I think we have an opportunity with this governor and the proposals that are here to make sure that we start taking care of everybody. So I'm still very hopeful that we will be able to use these programs and these funds to take care of the people who will be displaced by these things, as well as take care of the people that are going to be working for Micron as well. So it's good that this is coming at this time for Syracuse. That's what I'm hopeful for.

GR: Okay, Leader Barclay, I'll give you the last word. We got about a minute or less. Do you have any concerns about Micron in this regard with housing or is it all good news, everything's good here?

WB: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I agree with Assemblyman Magnarelli about taking down 81. I think we are allied on that issue and I have some of the concerns that he voiced with that, too. That being said, obviously, let's keep our fingers crossed. Let's hope, you know, I'm optimistic, I have no reason to think it won't happen. But I want to see the actual shovels in the ground and seeing Micron get built, then I can rest a lot easier. You know, high tide rises all ships and so if we bring in this private investment, get a lot of new jobs, high paying jobs, that's going to just add to our tax base in Central New York. And presumably, as a result, we can improve the schools, improve health care or whatever else wants to be done. So it is a very positive thing. My concern, of course, is I just want to make sure it becomes a reality.

GR: Well, you both are in heated agreement on that, I bet. That was Bill Magnarelli and Will Barclay. Assemblyman Magnarelli, Leader Barclay, thanks again for taking time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

BM: Thank you for having me.

WB: 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.