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Spring holidays could complicate New York's late budget

John McDonald
Jesse King
John McDonald

Saturday marks the first day of the new fiscal year in New York State and for the second year in a row the budget is late. Legislative leaders are still in disagreement with fellow Democrat Governor Kathy Hochul over a number of issues including bail reform, an ambitious housing package, and Medicaid funding. For more, WAMC's Ian Pickus spoke with Democratic state Assemblyman John McDonald of the 108th district:

I'm not surprised. There are two main complex topics that really are holding up the process. One is the public safety conversation, which includes the topic of bail. And then the other aspect deals with the governor's proposal for housing compact, which, you know, it's interesting, that's having a large impact, particularly in the suburbs, throughout the state, primarily in the Hudson Valley and Long Island in that area.

Well, how do you see those two resolving? Will there be accord on those issues in time for a budget? Or are these things that are going to wait until later in the session?

No, I think now it's the time. I think they are going to resolve themselves. I think once they do, the rest of the budget flows pretty comfortably. I do think there's an urgency still to get the budget done for a couple of different reasons. First and foremost, for the public employees we want to make sure that they continue to receive their pay, because there's, you know, in the budget's late, that's at risk, but I think we would do an extender if need be. More importantly, you know, from the housing compact, you know, it's an interesting part, some parts of Long Island and the Hudson Valley are not too crazy about it. And the proposal the assembly's put forward, which is similar to Senate, instead of it being a mandate that the governor is really pushing to say, this is the zone you need to accept, I believe we do something similar to what we did with law enforcement reform years ago. Establish guidelines and make the local town board and city officials along with the zoning and planning boards meet to review what the governor's guidelines are to make sure we have more inclusive and affordable housing throughout the state of New York.

And then if those communities make those changes make sure there's resources to follow, because sometimes the reason why communities hold back on housing initiatives is because it's going to have a tremendous investment of infrastructure. Think water and sewer, for example, even broadband now, right? So, I think it's an opportunity from my perspective, I agree with the governor, we want to continue to grow New York, as much as people like to talk how many people left, what people don't recall is that we are at our highest volume and population ever in the country.

The problem is, we did not grow as much as some of the other bigger states. So, I'm all for growing New York, particularly in New York City, where most people have left, that was pandemic related. But I think it's an opportunity to really do something constructive in regards to the public safety, conversation and bail. And this is my opinion, but I don't think I'm alone. I know I'm not alone in this. There's some mixed messaging coming out. The speaker is listening and working and making sure the governor understands that we understand that the public has concerns about public safety, we're just trying to figure out the right process to go about doing it that's going to be fair and equitable to everybody and accomplish the public schools, not just to win a political talking point. And, you know, you've seen some messages coming out from some of my colleagues saying that the majority doesn't want to make any changes.

Well, first of all, the only person who speaks for the assembly is the speaker, or the majority leader, or the spokesperson for one of the three. So, I'm just giving you my opinion. But I can tell you, I'm not alone, that many members are willing to have that discussion. But it has to be effective. Far too often, politicians, and I fall in that group, we look for the winning talking point. But the reality is, we want to have something that's beneficial and still respects the principles of bail. And I repeat it because it's worth repeating. Number one, every individual is innocent until proven guilty. And number two, just because you're not wealthy, doesn't mean you should sit in jail and other people can go out and live their lives. Once again, people are charged with things, there's a process for them to either prove their innocence or to accept their guilt. And you know, for too long, many individuals have lost careers. Have lost families spending years on end in jail waiting for trial. So it's a difficult issue. A lot of incorrect rhetoric out there. So, we want to try to resolve those issues, because at the end of the day, it's about making sure that New Yorkers are able to live in New York comfortably and also feel comfortable living here.

Well, do you think your chamber will eventually agree with Governor Hochul about giving judges more discretion when dealing with a violent crime or something like that?

I think there's a lot of different areas that our chamber will agree with the governor and that may be one of them to what degree, that's yet to be determined. And there's a lot of nuances, Ian. I've been blessed to be able to serve as Mayor of Cohoes for 13 years and Public Safety Commissioner. And of course, being in the legislature now for 11 years. And one thing is very clear. The public doesn't really want to know what the issue is on public safety, they just wanted it addressed. The problem is the solution is just not that easy. I was reminded by an assistant police chief, or 20 years ago, we live with the angels every single day. So, let's look and see what we can implement that's going to make sense. I've talked to judges, I've talked to police chiefs, in my district and outside the district. Yeah, they all want to do the right thing. They all want a little bit greater clarification. And that's on the legislature to make sure we can provide that clarification. What the definition of least-restrictive means will be or greater judgment and judicial discretion. That remains to discuss but it's got to be effective. It just can't be a talking point.

So, what's your best guess? The governor was asked, 'Will we have a deal by Easter?' and she said she's not going to wade into hypotheticals. But do you think this could go on for as long as it did last year?

Yeah, it's possible. We'll be here for the weekend. There's no doubt about that. Passover starts the evening of April 5. So, I think if things start to materialize over the weekend, it's entirely possible we could have something completed by April 5. If not, then, you know, I would think we would do an extender to make sure that the public employees continue to be paid; they're not impacted because of the legislature and the governor's inability to put a budget across the goal line. And then another week or two after that with the with the holidays, there's a lot of individuals who have scheduled travel. I'm not talking about the legislature as much as a lot of families and therefore it may be delayed by a week or two. You know, at the end of the day, it's important to walk that fine line of having a budget that works for all New Yorkers. And yes, it'd be great to have it done on time or only a day or two late but let's get it done right.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.