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Full Episode: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Budget Hearings Begin, Inside the State Capitol
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Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Budget Hearings Begin, Inside the State Capitol

Full transcript of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Budget Hearings Begin, Inside the State Capitol

Dan Clark: Hearings on Governor Kathy Hochul’s $227 billion budget plan began this week, kicking off the next two months of negotiations with the legislature, and it is a long process.

Lawmakers will sit through 13 hearings over the next month, and each hearing can last all day with some going for 10 hours or more. That's because they hear from a lot of people in these hearings. They invite commissioners from state agencies, industry leaders and other stakeholders to testify on what they think should be in the state budget.

It's also a rare opportunity for lawmakers to question state leaders in public, like House Senate Deputy Majority Leader Mike Gianaris, a Democrat, who tried asking the state's acting chief administrative judge about the inner workings of the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals. The judge, Tamiko Amaker, said she had no answers for him, which prompted this exchange on Tuesday.

Mike Gianaris: If I could, I barely had a chance to ask any questions. She's filibustering like a very effective legislator.

(Crosstalk): I’m sorry… I know but we gave you deference beyond the law.

MG: Okay, I'll move on from that one. Give me one more minute, if I may, madam chair.

Tamiko Amaker: But Senator…

(Crosstalk): No. Sorry Mike.

MG: I will just say this in closing, that the court system has a real problem. In just the few minutes that I've been here they have provided no answers to questions of who receives training, what the training materials are, what the vote for acting chief was, whether there's still an ongoing expense of public resources for the safety of former judges. I don't know if you saw this story from Frank Runyeon in Law360 today.

(Crosstalk): Time's up.

MG: But in fact, there is a serious corruption problem within the Court of Appeals where judges are receiving public benefits and not reporting them. Now they ask for $2.5 billion dollars. I think that's a serious problem, Judge.

DC: These hearings are also an opportunity to just hear different perspectives on top issues. Take charter schools. Governor Hochul wants to add more charter schools in New York City this year, which a lot of Democrats oppose. This week, lawmakers were able to bring that plan to state Education Commissioner Betty Rosa, who is independent from the governor's office.

Here's what she said.

Betty Rosa: If it's such a wonderful experiment, then let me see it in places that embrace it other than communities of color. I will tell you, the amount of charter schools that are focused on communities of color is huge. But I yet to see it in some of the places that you and I would probably say, if it's such a great experiment, show it to me, and why aren't other people embracing it? Good things are embraced by everybody, not just some.

DC: Those are the kinds of conversations that will set the stage for negotiations. After the hearings, legislative leaders will sit down with Hochul and work out a final state budget. One of them is Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx.

We spoke this week about Hochul’s budget plan, this year's legislative session and more.

Speaker Heastie, thank you so much for coming back. I appreciate it.

Carl Heastie: Thank you for having me. Good to be here.

DC: Of course, any time.

I want to ask you about the governor's priorities for this year, but first, I want to bring it back into the assembly chamber and look at what you all are planning to do over the next couple of months until the end of session.

How would you describe the top priorities of the assembly over these next couple of months?

CH: Well Dan, I'd say then from year to year, our focus is always on supporting our families first agenda. Trying to do right by the people of the state of New York, and I'd say amongst all of the issues that are important, issues of public safety and affordability, I think are two of the biggest things that are on people's minds.

I think that being safe and feeling safe are two different things. New York remains one of the safest big states in the nation, New York City remains one of the biggest cities, but people don't feel safe. So, I think we have to deal with the issues and people's perception. Perception is people's reality.

Then when it comes to affordability, again, that's one of the issues that ties into this issue of public safety. People can't afford to live in New York and particularly New York City. You know, it's not something we're going to solve overnight, but I think we need to start to figure those things out on affordability and really start to lay the groundwork so people feel comfortable in raising their families here and staying here.

DC: So public safety and affordability are also two of the governor's top priorities this year, as we saw in her state of the state and her budget address just a few weeks ago. Do you think her agenda goes far enough on those issues?

CH: Well, I'll just say this. There's never been a time when a governor's budget was passed word for word and dollar for dollar. The governor's, based on the Constitution, they propose, the legislature disposes. So, we'll have the conversations over the next couple of months. We'll come up with where we believe we are, the Senate will come up where they believe they are, and we'll just negotiate between the three. These are three democratic pieces of government, and I think in the end we'll figure it out.

DC: One topic that has caused some controversy is charter schools. The governor has a plan to essentially add more charter schools to New York City by shifting a regional cap, getting rid of that, and then reissuing so-called zombie charters.

You said to reporters a few weeks ago that may be a difficult issue for your conference because in the Assembly, Democrats have traditionally leaned more towards public schools, traditional public schools, than charter schools.

Can you give us some more context? Why might this be harder for your members?

CH: I think, you know, for a lot of us, particularly the Assembly, we were educated through the public school system. For me, I've been in public school all the way up through graduate school. So, we just want the schools to be able to give the same opportunity that they gave us and for the young people that we all represent in our districts, we want them to grow up and be whatever it is that they choose to be in life, and so we just feel the focus of that is through the traditional public schools. That's really where the conference's focus has been and remains.

DC: The governor wants to increase school aid for traditional public schools by $3.1 billion, it is, as she says, the largest ever increase in one year in school aid. I could see a situation where that might be kind of a tradeoff for this charter issue. What do you think about that?

CH: I don't think so, because this was a three-year commitment to deal with the campaign for fiscal equity lawsuit. This now, almost I'd say, is late but finally the debt is going to be paid that the court said we had underfunded our education system in the state of New York. So no, I don't think it's going to be a trade.

I think the issue of charters will be a standalone issue that the government is going to put forward, but I don't think she's going to say, you don't give me charters I'm going to cut the education funding that has been agreed upon.

This is the third year of a three-year installment, which the governor was a part of for parts two and three.

DC: She also has an interesting proposal around funding for the MTA, New York City subways. This proposal would have a few moving parts. One would raise a certain tax, a payroll tax for businesses in the suburbs, and also take a share of casino revenue from these new, New York City casinos to go towards the MTA.

Do you think that's a good solution for the MTA’s financial woes that Janno Lieber, the chief of the MTA, has warned that the MTA may be in a deficit moving forward?

CH: Well, let me start from the premise that I think we need to get the MTA its money if we want New York City and metropolitan area to get back to where it was pre-pandemic. We wouldn’t get there without a robust and great transit system. As once was always told, the MTA is like the artery system of the body of the metropolitan area, so, without that, we can't be the mecca of the of the world.

So, I start there saying we have to get the MTA the financing that it needs. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll figure out how we get there. The governor laid down a marker and that's what the legislature does now. We’ll look, we might like some things, we might dislike some things, but I do think we all agree that we have to get the MTA the money.

DC: One thing that I think you may favor in her budget proposal is an idea to tie minimum wage to inflation. There's differences between whether we should raise it first and then tie it or if we should just tie it to inflation moving forward.

I know that you have seemed supportive of a minimum wage increase in the past. Just a few weeks ago I think you made some comments about it. What do you think about that proposal?

CH: I think most things should always be set to inflation, so they don't become part of the political volley volleyball that happens often throughout government as prices go up. That's one of the reasons why we're in this position that we are because far too often prices increase and people's incomes have not increased at that at that same margin. For instance, in New York City, we have not raised the minimum wage since it got to $15. It's been at $15 for the last few years, but this is where we'll have the conversation with the governor.

I think the fact that we all believe that the minimum wage should be increased is a good thing, and as they say, as the tide rises all boats rise too. So, when you raise the minimum wage it puts upward pressure to raise wages across the board.

Again, as we've been talking about affordability, putting more money in people's pockets increases affordability, increasing the minimum wage helps particularly local economies, because that's money that people will spend in the supermarket and in the dry cleaner, the laundromat, and local restaurants, things like that. So that also helps to boost the economy as well.

DC: On another proposal I have to ask you about what she wants to do in terms of bail reform, which is something that we just cannot stop talking about. She wants to eliminate something called the least restrictive means. It's a term that I can't really define, but she wants to take away that in terms of setting bail for higher level charges, so judges would no longer have to set restrictions based on the least restrictive means.

You've been a big supporter of the criminal justice changes in the state in the past couple of years. When you became speaker, they were a big priority for you. Do you think the governor's changes are a nonstarter or are you open to that conversation this year?

CH: I think where we are as opposed to when we opened up is we're having to deal with the perception of people's concerns on crime, and again, like I said, New York is one of the safest states, New York City is still one of the safest big cities.

Crime was up. I don't think that people are giving enough credit to what the pandemic has done to us as a nation, as a state, and as a city, and I often feel like bail is being scapegoated. When we're looking at the recidivism rates, post and free bail are relatively the same, but yet it's been good to blame it politically. You know, people have run campaigns on it. It seems to be working for campaigns, but I say we have to deal with the people of the state.

It can't be, I’d say, not acknowledging the feelings of the people in the state of not feeling safe. I think we have to address that. What that is, I can't tell you per se what we will do in the end, but we do have to deal with making people in this state feel safer.

DC: Do you think that makes it difficult, the perception that bail reform has caused a spike in crime, which I should note, there is no data to tie those two things together. Do you think that makes it more difficult to pass additional criminal justice measures like the Clean Slate Act that we have been talking about for the past couple of years? Does that make it more difficult to do these things?

CH: I think that you always want to be able to... when you do things as a as a legislator, there's times you have to lead your community, but there's also times you have to follow the community, so how your constituents feel, does have input into how you game plan things. But, I think this overfocus and over blaming of bail has made it tough for conversations, but in essence these are the right things to do. People have paid their debt to society, and they just want to be able to earn a living and take care of their families.

We're supposed to be the greatest country in the world. People deserve second chances, but this overfocus and over blaming and scaring people about what's going on in the city and state, makes the environment more difficult. I don't know if it makes the will to do things more difficult, but it does make the environment a little tougher.

DC: Before I let you go, I did mention the Clean Slate Act. Do you have any updates on that in your chamber? It's had a tough go the past couple of years with differing reasons on why it hasn't passed. Any update you can give us?

CH: Again, as we start to discuss the governor's budget, where we go throughout this this budget and then in this session, I’m sure the Clean Slate Act will be a part of that discussion.

There's this there's a good amount of support in the conference, but to me, as the leader of the Assembly, I like to move the conference in a place that everybody can be comfortable. I think that’s what a leader does. You try to get everybody to a place where we can all be comfortable and we'll see if we can get there.

It's not necessarily about pass or fail, it's about trying to move the assembly in a place where the Democratic conference, where members can all be comfortable with the work that we do.

DC: All right. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, thank you so much.

CH: Thank you, Dan. Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

DC: Heastie, Hochul, and the Senate have until April 1 to approve a final state budget.

Dan Clark: One issue that's already on the table for the state budget is higher pay for homecare workers. You'll remember that in last year's state budget those workers got a small pay bump of $2 above the minimum wage. But homecare workers say that didn't go far enough. They want their minimum wage set at around $22 an hour. State Senator Rachel May is a supporter of that idea, which is not part of Hochul’s budget plan.

Rachel May: I was very proud of what we got done last year in the budget, and I'm... disappointed isn't the right word, I'm very upset about what is in the governor's budget this year. We are going to fight as hard as we possibly can to make sure that we keep the minimum for homecare workers above the minimum wage.

DC: We'll keep an eye on that fight.

RM: Turning now to politics in New York, former Congressman Lee Zeldin, who was last year's Republican nominee for governor, spoke to reporters in Albany this week for the first time since the election, and he said he's not leaving politics anytime soon. Some political forecasters think he may run for U.S. Senate next year against Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, and Zeldin did say he's forming a new federal political action committee but said nothing's official just yet.

Lee Zeldin: I don't have anything to announce right now. What I do know is that I'm going to stay very active. I want to do my part. I just had reserve duty yesterday and the day before. I enjoy serving in the military and finishing my 20th year in May. I will continue to serve. I do believe that at some point there will be a reentry to government, exactly what that will be and when we'll see.

DC: We'll be watching that as well.

Dan Clark: We show you a lot of the state capitol on the show, and if you've never been there, I promise it is well worth the trip. The state capitol took more than three decades to build, and even then, it wasn't done. When then Governor Teddy Roosevelt took office, he stopped work on the capitol and declared it finished. Since then, a lot of the building has been preserved with original floors, walls, and staircases that all still look brand new. So, this week we thought we’d take you on your own trip to the state capitol in this piece from WMHT’s Will Pedigo.

NAT SOUND: 2PM tour, you guys made it. Welcome everyone, welcome to Albany. We're going to take the next 45 to 50 minutes on a nice leisurely walk through the capitol. All right, follow me.

Matthew Hamm: My name is Matt, and I have been a tour guide since August 27th, 2012.

NAT SOUND: We're going to fill up this elevator. I assure you that we can probably all fit in here.

MH: I feel unbelievably lucky because we get to talk about New York state history, we get to talk about culture, get to talk about art every day. I could not imagine that a job like this would exist, but it does.

NAT SOUND: A couple steps down, feel free to take a seat. You're already taking photographs, this is what I want to see.

MH: New York spent a lot of money on the Civil War, right? More money than any state. We provided more guns, more bullets, more everything toward the cause, and more New Yorkers died fighting in the Civil War than any state. So, we come out of the war victorious, we want to celebrate, we want to memorialize this situation, write the history and we chose to build a new capitol.

Our tour guides not only need to know the ins-and-outs of the building and what type of stone is behind me, but they also need to know where any visitors are supposed to go for whatever needs they have that day. Our detail gets extremely granular.

NAT SOUND: Lucky for us, we found some of the last original tile floor in the building under some 1950s floor, and this is minton tile from the Minton China Company out of England. Since they are still around. If one of the tiles here cracks or breaks, they can make us a replica of a tile that they made us over a hundred years ago. How amazing is that? All right, follow me.

MH: We can thank the OGS (Office of General Services) design and construction crew who have done reports on the building. There are historic reports, architecture reports that tell us how many windows there are, how many columns, how many arches, each stone, each tile, what was really original, what was replica, what's not. And we need that information because we get those questions every day from visitors.

NAT SOUND: Was this the first building to have electricity in Albany?

This was one of the first government buildings in the country with electric lighting.

MH: The New York state capitol is extremely complicated. Right off the bat it has to do with the architects. Usually, you have one architect, they come up with one single beautiful design and they roll it out and there's a completion date, but for our capitol, it did not work out that way.

We had five architects in total. We have about 5 to 6 different architectural styles within the building, architects didn't agree with what the previous architect might have done. So, we talk about Henry Hobson Richardson being the main architect for the Senate side of the building, but he never touched the Senate staircase. It was his architectural partner, Leopold Eidlitz, who did something completely different.

It is so complicated, but it makes it really interesting and exciting, and I think that's why visitors are drawn. There was someone on the tour today that I know has taken our tour probably five or six times.

NAT SOUND: All right, this is it. This is the New York State Assembly chamber. We need both chambers in order to get those bills voted on. The majority vote yes and it goes to the governor's desk for a signature.

MH: I love New York state. My background is in geography, and my specialty was New York state geography. Just an obsession with New York on the map of obsession of everything within that map, landmarks, cities, towns, historic events you know. The majority of the American Revolution was fought on New York State soil, that's amazing. New York really is a special place as far as national history.

NAT SOUND: This is what we call the great western staircase. This staircase took about 12 years to build. Every bit of this stone was imported from Scotland. It's a sandstone, it was ideal for carving. It was covered in hay to keep it moist on its transport here to Albany. Once it arrived, the blocks were set, and the carvers got onto the stone and carved in place.

MH: The great western staircase, the public knows it as the million-dollar staircase, I think that's the perfect representation. It might be one type of architecture, but there are 77 famous faces and many of them are New Yorkers, and they are all diverse backgrounds. You have women, you have plenty of famous men, but we have Frederick Douglass, we have Susan B. Anthony, we have these figures in history that just remind visitors of how important our American history is. If anything, this staircase is really a showcase of American history, not just New York state history, but really New York's involvement in national history.

The response we want from visitors who take our tours and see our exhibits is really that they walked away learning something. Really anything, even if it was 10%, 1% that they got, at least they were learning something about New York state, something that matters.

On the capitol tour side my main goal is to let people know that this is a public building. This is not some fortress that you're not allowed to enter, and I think there is a major misnomer of people thinking that they can't come into this building. You walk in and you see a security guard and you see metal detectors and I think sometimes people won't even ask if they could go any further. They'll just see that, turn around and leave, and that is absolutely not what people should do. You know just come inside, it's open to the public. Get through the metal detector and you can roam the halls, take pictures of some of the most beautiful architecture that you will ever see, it’s here.

Also letting people know that they can become part of the legislative process. When New Yorkers take our tours and they did not know that they can watch a legislative session live or know that they can even be involved in that process, there's a message being lost there. So, our tour guides really try to remind the public that this is an accessible building, and the work that's happening in this building will affect your life, and if you choose not to be involved, that's your choice, but there are consequences to choices.

DC: A big thanks to that tour guide in the piece, that's Matthew Ham

On This Week's Edition

Catch this week's show on your local PBS station, or watch on YouTube, Facebook, or using the free PBS app anytime after Friday.

On This Week's Edition of New York NOW:

  • Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie joins us with his take on this year's legislative session, Gov. Kathy Hochul's budget plan, and more.
  • Hearings on Hochul's budget plan began this week. We'll explain.
  • Have you been to the New York State Capitol? Not like this. WMHT's Will Pedigo takes us inside the historic building.
  • Plus, an update on former Rep. Lee Zeldin, last year's Republican nominee for governor.