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Rachel May on the Campbell Conversations

Rachel May

On this week's episode of the Campbell Conversations, Grant Reeher speaks with State Senator Rachel May.

Program transcript:

Grant Reeher: Welcome to the Campbell Conversations, I'm Grant Reeher. My guest today is State Senator Rachel May. The Democrat is serving and her third term and represents the 48 Senate district, which contains the city of Syracuse and the areas west and south of the city and all of Cayuga County. The Senator is with me to discuss the recently passed budget and the remainder of the legislative session. I just want to let listeners know that we did contact some local Republican members of the legislature to join her in this conversation, but none were available. I hope to have them on the program soon. But for now. Senator May, welcome back to the program.

RM: Thank you, Grant, it's great to be here.

GR: It's good to have you here. So, let me just start with a basic question about the budget and central New York. What do you think were the most important aspects of the state budget most relevant to central New York?

RM: Well, on the plus side, we, I think this is a really good budget for children and working families and also for the environment. And I think all of those are obviously important to us here in central New York. So, you know, we were able to get more support for child care. We finally are fully funding our public schools, we got money for school meals. A lot of school districts within my district are going to be able to feed the kids which is really important to their success in school. We raised the minimum wage and I think very importantly, we extended the child tax credit to kids below the age of four. It used to only be four an up, mow it's babies and toddlers as well, which is really important because child poverty is extremely high in the city of Syracuse and a lot of cities across the state, across upstate. And so addressing that, the child tax credit has been one of the best tools we have for addressing that. So that's a big deal. And then on the environment, we are making strides in implementing our climate goals from holding large emitters of carbon dioxide, CO2 and methane accountable through the Cap-and-Invest Program. We're also shifting to much more efficient buildings with the All Electric Buildings Act and building public renewables, which is a huge deal having the New York Power Authority actually contracting and building its own renewable energy projects. And then we got money for the Environmental Protection Fund, for the Clean Water Infrastructure Fund, lots of $500 million for clean water infrastructure. That's enormously important to our local governments and to our drinking water systems and our wastewater system. So, you know, a lot of good things, I think, for this region.

GR: You know, just curious, you mentioned the removal of the four year old line there for child tax credit. What was the era what was the rationale for not covering that for children between zero and four in the first place?

RM: Makes no sense to me. I think it was just a cost saving factor, probably.

GR: Okay.

RM: But, you know, when we count child poverty and we say almost 50% of kids in Syracuse are below the poverty line where we're including the babies and toddlers there, we don't cut it off at age four. So obviously those kids and their parents have needs, too. So I think this was a big deal. And I have to say, you're probably going to talk about the process of the budget, it was ugly.

GR: (laughter)

RM: But this came in at the very last minute. This was something the legislature, really the Senate insisted on in order to close the negotiations on the budget. So, you know, you can debate whether it was worth it having that extra month to finish a budget. But we got something really important for our kids and families and we had some leverage there as the governor wanted to close it down. And that was something we insisted on and I'm really proud of that.

GR: I'll make an editorial comment, I've written on this in the past. But, you know, as you are probably aware, New York is unique in the United States for having a, what I would consider a ridiculously early budget deadline. Most states are into July and some even later than that. I don't know why we do April 1st. But, you know, that would be a recommendation that I would make to Albany is to change that date. You know, you said those are all the positive things. I would assume there are some negative things in there given that you've bracketed it that way. What was not part of the budget that you would have liked to have seen included.

RM: Well, we have a housing crisis in this state. We have an affordable housing crisis. And this budget kind of dropped the ball on that one. And that, I think, is a tragedy in a lot of ways. We have homelessness going up here in Syracuse and across the state. We have people facing eviction or just, you know, their rents are being raised to levels that they simply can't afford and there are no other options for them. So we're going to have a lot more homelessness or, you know, people couch surfing or otherwise living in temporary housing of various kinds. That isn't going to be the stable housing that people should have and we're going to find a lot of employers aren't going to be able to hire people because their workers cannot find affordable housing. People our age whose kids might want to move back and live here after college or, you know, settle here and raise a family here are not having options of places to live. And that is a crisis for the whole state, for, you know, individual families, but also for businesses and for our whole economy. And we did not find a solution to that in this budget. And that's, you know, at the end of the process where you have a whole lot of legislation we're trying to pass still this session. But it's also a budgetary issue, it's a big frustration that we didn't move the needle on that, really.

GR: You're listening to The Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher and I'm speaking with New York State Senator Rachel May. You mentioned the process being ugly, I mean, it was late and there was a lot of back and forth there. One of the things in my understanding that did hold up the negotiations, among others, was this continued debate over cash bail and pretrial detention and whether to change it. And the governor wanted, I think, more discretion for judges to keep people charged, detained, if that judge thought it was necessary for public safety. The liberal wing of the Democratic members of the legislature wanted to stick more with the system of cashless bail and pretrial release for many of the accused that had already been put into place. Just remind our listeners of where that issue ended up.

RM: Yeah, so this was an issue, we changed the law three years ago. It's been adjusted every budget cycle since then and the governor wanted some more adjustments to it. And she got some of what she wanted in terms of changing the standard that judges use to consider whether to require bail. We did push back on the discovery piece, because she was pushing to have defendants have much less information about what the evidence was against them and much less ability to prepare for their defense and we pushed that out. That wasn't in the budget, but there was some change in what, how judges can make decisions about bail.

GR: And in recent years, it seems like the budget negotiations and the budget itself have entailed a lot of different programs and a lot of different issues that sometimes I think at first seem like they could, maybe they should, not be folded in to the budget negotiation process. It's like the budget is the big thing and really sort of drives everything for that year. And, you know, bail reform might be one of those. I mean, it's not clear that that necessarily should have been part of that. Why do you think is the budget becoming so, if I'm right about this, becoming so all-encompassing for the state’s policies, decisions, why so much being put on to it?

RM: So that's not a new thing. But the New York State Constitution is different from every other constitution of every other state in the nation in terms of giving the governor power over the budget. And what that means is, the governor likes to, any governor likes to put a lot of policy into the budget because it's the only place where the governor is driving legislation. And so a lot of legislation gets shoved into the budget, partly because the governor has leverage. We have to pass the budget, we have to fund our schools, we have to fund, you know, all of the roads and bridges, all of that stuff. And so, you know, twisting our arms to shove in things that we aren't interested in, including, or that wouldn't that we think should go through a much more rigorous process in terms of vetting the policy, the governor still has a lot of power over that. And there are efforts to reform that, to change the constitution so that we have something closer to other states in terms of division of powers in this state. But we're not there now. And so a lot of, it's always been true that a lot of legislation gets shoved into the budget, and it's, for those of us in the legislature, that's frustrating because that should be our power to, you know, to initiate legislation and a lot of it gets taken away through the budget process. I’ve got to say, in addition to that, because the budget was late, it's been harder for us to focus on…typically after April 1st the second half of our session is our time to pass our bills. And we've been passing bills, we didn't stop doing that. But, you know, the attention was on the budget. And so the ability to pass complicated bills, things that involve a lot of negotiation and that sort of thing, that's been held up for us. And so we have a much shorter window now to do that kind of thing.

GR: It's hard to imagine, I think, in this political climate, having a change successfully made to a constitution. So it's probably going to be the way it's going to be for a while.

RM: We have a process for that in New York State. If we pass a bill in two successive sessions and then the voters approve it, it changes our constitution and the governor doesn't have a say in that process. So we, it's possible to do it and there are some bills out there to change the way the budget is handled. To say, for example, that the governor can't put into the budget anything that's not already proposed legislation by the legislature, something like that, they can't just make up new legislation and stick it in the budget. That's a bill that people are trying to advance and I think the public might be receptive to that. And I think people understand that the executive and the legislature have different roles and that preserving the legislative role of the legislature makes sense.

GR: Well, it'll be something to keep an eye on. You're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media. I'm Grant Reeher, and I'm talking with Rachel May, a New York State Senator who represents the 48 Senate District. I wanted to go back to this issue of the budget negotiations that we were talking about, and if you could, I'm just very curious, I want to get a sense of, let's take bail reform. I want to get a sense of what those conversations with the governor's office, what those negotiations are like. I mean, are they are they arguments about the policies themselves or about the politics of it? Is the governor in there saying, for example, look, you know, I got beaten up in the general election on crime, I really can't, I really have to do some things here and you Democrats have to understand that in the state Senate. I mean, I just I'm just curious as to what the conversation is like, do you have any idea?

RM: So I will say this budget process was more frustrating for me than any other budget process, the previous four that I've been part of. Because our leadership has tried very hard to include us in the process of these negotiations, at least to update us regularly and get, take our temperature on it. And my sense was the governor came with a set of “take it or leave it” propositions early on, and there wasn't really a lot of negotiation that happened. And so we weren't getting updates regularly. And so, I'm not at the table making those negotiations and this was extremely frustrating. We had a lot of conference sessions where we thought we were going to get an update on where we are in the budget and it was basically, “Nothing to tell you here” and so that was really frustrating. And I will say I was much more focused on kind of the money issues in the budget. But those things we also weren't being updated about because the governor's team wanted the policy stuff decided first and so everything kind of happened all of a sudden. Once, like, there was sign off on those issues, everything else happened really fast and we didn't have as much input or as much ability to weigh in about the details as we have in the past. And that was pretty frustrating. But as I said, as it got to the point where people really wanted to close it down, we had a little more leverage to make things happen, for example, for this region, more funding for refugee resettlement, I think appeared at that point later on because we were pushing for it. More funding for the arts, more funding for our Native American health clinics and the school, the Onondaga Nation School. There were a lot of things I was able to influence in the budget because we were in this process where people really wanted to get to an agreement point.

GR: I got a couple calls before the budget process started from reporters asking me if I thought that the governor would be in a particularly weak position because of the election. And what you're saying kind of tracks on to what I seem to have observed, which was that perhaps maybe some of those opening moves were designed to kind of broadcast, look, I am strong, I am not weak and I'm going to show you the power that I have. But as you say, you know, when you got down to past the deadline, then some of the advantages may have shift. I wanted to ask you this question about the budget that you and I have talked about many times before, which is just simply its size, the amount of spending that New York engages in. So I want to ask you the question I always ask you, I'll try to ask it a little bit differently this time, but as far as I understand, it's another record amount, $229 billion. What do you think it would take, given the composition of the governor's office and the legislature as it currently is, what do you think it would take in terms of some kind of shock to the system or other set of circumstances for the governor and the legislature to actually come together and say, you know what, we're going to actually reduce spending this year, our budget is going to be smaller than it was last year. That hasn't happened in a very long time, are those days over?

RM: Well, it is very hard to find a place that you would cut because the biggest pieces of the budget are health care, education and transportation, those are the three. And, you know, the MTA is a huge piece of our budget, but it's also absolutely fundamental to life and business in the New York City area, which is the, you know, the economic engine of the state. And our roads and bridges upstate, you know, we have to keep them maintained. Our schools require a lot of money and, you know, there are ways to cut. I think we do, part of the problem with the foundation aid formula is it has involved, it was about making sure that the neediest school districts get what they want. But politically, it's been important to support all the school districts and continue increasing funding for all the school districts. It would involve a lot of you know, elected officials being willing to say, okay, my school district doesn't need as much as it's getting. And that is really hard to get to.

GR: (laughter) Yeah, right, who's going to do that?

RM: And in terms of health care, I mean, I think there's all the more need for infrastructure funding, but health care is one where Governor Cuomo tried to squeeze the health care budget and he put a cap on Medicaid increases and all of that. And what we're seeing as a result of that is hospitals closing, nursing homes closing, people not getting the health care that they need and doctors and nurses, you know, leaving because they can't get the reimbursements that they require. It's a crisis in this state. And what we heard from this budget, even though there were increases for Medicaid reimbursement all of that kind of thing, it is nowhere near enough. And so, you know, there are parts of the budget where we have tried that and it has led to serious problems. So you've got to figure out what are the pressure points, you know, is it economic development, are there are places where we can cut there? Is it you know, like I said, wealthier school districts, are they willing to take a haircut? You know, it's very, very, very hard to do that, especially when a lot of needs are simply not being met.

GR: If you've just joined us, you're listening to the Campbell Conversations on WRVO Public Media, and my guest is New York State Senator Rachel May. You mentioned earlier in our conversation the importance of housing and affordable housing and that was one of the disappointments you had for the budget process, that there wasn't more done for that there. That was kind of set aside as part of the negotiations. One of the things that the governor sort of said, okay, I'll let that go. I'll come back to it later. What do you anticipate happening with that issue this year? Is that issue done for this year or do you think that this session might produce something significant?

RM: It's hard to say. I mean, there's two pieces to it. There is producing more affordable housing and there is keeping people in their homes who are already there which means tenant protections and support for homeowners who are facing, you know, default on their loans or something like that. And those things, to some extent you can do that through legislation. The good cause eviction is one way to say you can't be evicted from your home, your apartment without good cause. If you've been paying the rent if you've been holding up your part of the bargain, you the landlord can't just say, oh, you know, I'm going to double your rent and try to find somebody else or that kind of thing. But that's a really, really hard one to pass. I hope we can get those kinds of tenant protections because I think just stable housing is really critical to our communities, to our schools, to our employers, to families, you know, and we don't value it highly enough. But that's not going to pass without concessions to the landlords and the, you know, building industry. And so figuring out what a package looks like that makes this happen, I have a number of bills that are trying simply to make it easier to build more affordable housing because New York has a lot of regulation right now that just makes it hard. It makes it more expensive to build multi-family housing and more risky to build multi-family housing. And so if we can just get the cost of building it down, then any multi-family housing can be more affordable because you know, right now just, you know, there are certain regulatory processes that you have to go through that extend the time it takes to build the housing for years. It drives the cost up by ten to eleven percent. If we can get around that, you know, suddenly we can have housing that was more affordable or we can at some point talk about some of these are pretty wonky the bills I have, but they address those kinds of issues. How do we make it more affordable? So even without mandates, without requiring that communities have more affordable housing, you could just make it possible for them to have more affordable housing, that's a big deal. I'd like to see some reform of the way we do zoning in this state, because typically zoning favors the single family homes. When I was on the board of zoning appeals here in Syracuse, we were all homeowners. And even though a lot of the people in Syracuse are renters, they weren't represented on the board of Zoning Appeals. And so, you know, just making sure that the decisions are being made, not just with the past in mind, but looking forward, like, what do we want this community to look like ten, twenty years from now? Who are we trying to get, who wants to live here and how can we make it possible for them to live here, that kind of thing. You know, we ought to be considering. And so there are ways to tinker around the edges of how we do housing. But I think comprehensive housing reform is probably got to be done in the context of the budget because it's going to require a lot of incentives and just money to build the housing.

GR: So it might be like the Brooklyn Dodgers wait till next year on that one. We've only got about a minute left. I want to squeeze in a more personal question, if I could, but it'll have to be brief. You know, I was thinking about when I was preparing to talk with you, you've had a couple of very successful careers before you got into politics. So this is kind of a third act for you, in a way. Do you have any idea of how much longer are you going to want to do it? And what have been, I don't know if you can say this in a couple of seconds, but the things about the job you've liked the most in the least so far, but you'll have to be brief, sorry.

RM: Okay, well, I love this job. I love that I'm learning new things every day and working with fantastic people. And my colleagues are really impressive and inspiring to work with. It is an exhausting job and I don't have big ambitions to, you know, run for a higher office or that kind of thing, which is I think keeps a lot of people going in it. So, I don't anticipate that I want to do this for, you know, another twenty years. But I'm not ruling out running for reelection this coming time or maybe one more time after that.

GR: Okay, great, we'll leave it there. That was Rachel May. Senator, as always, thanks so much for making the time to talk with me. I really appreciate it.

RM: Absolutely. Thanks, Grant.

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.