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Full Episode: Budget Deadline Looms, Latest from the State Capitol, What Matters to Upstate

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Budget Deadline Looms, Latest from the State Capitol, What Matters to Upstate

Full transcript of Budget Deadline Looms, Latest from the State Capitol, What Matters to Upstate

Dan Clark: There are now less than three weeks before the New York state budget is due, but if you were at the Capitol this week, you wouldn't really know it. We had the usual rush of advocates hosting rallies and press conferences on what they want in the budget, and not much else.

That's because both the Senate and the Assembly were busy putting together their one-house budgets. Those are basically a rebuttal to Hochul’s plan, and it's when negotiations actually start. We're expecting both chambers to pass their one-house budgets next week. That will give us a better sense of where lawmakers stand on top issues. Governor Kathy Hochul, meanwhile, spent part of the week defending her budget plan, including a change to the state's bail laws that progressives in the legislature don't like.

Here's what she said in Rochester this week.

Kathy Hochul: We're talking about protecting society in a way that people would think is common sense. Many members of the legislature have stepped up in support, others have not. And I want to say it's courageous when someone can stand up and say, I know we need this change, I know it's hard, but I also know that it has to happen.

DC: Let's start there with this week's panel. Josh Solomon is from the Times Union and Rebecca Lewis is from City and State. Thank you both for being here.

So, Josh, on the bail reform issue, this has been something that we have just been ping-pong back and forth for the past few years. Do you have a sense that it will be a big issue again this year in the budget right now? Governor Hochul has this proposal that we just mentioned before to take out the least restrictive means standard for judges to use for certain charges. So, what's your sense on that right now?

Josh Solomon: I think the best example of it is when she was in Rochester, she had Senator Cooney there who was backing her proposal. Then later in the day, he told the New York Post that he wasn't necessarily backing her proposal, and so and where it's left right now, is a little confusing.

I think that's an indication that Senate Democrats may not have an appetite for it. The Governor wants it. It may be one of those pieces that we're hearing about horse trading in the final hour.

DC: Right, that's what I was thinking. I'm thinking if they circle back to the judicial training aspect of it, I know that was a big topic in the public protection budget hearing just a few weeks back. So that'll be interesting to see because when they were doing bail back in 2019, very few reporters were covering the actual negotiations part of it and I just remember it being so complicated at the time. I mean, that was that was the first bail law, it wasn't the amendment. So, I guess maybe the amendments will be easier. But that's something that that we're watching, obviously.

Rebecca, I want to turn to you. What are you watching in the next few weeks? I feel like this is a budget that has a lot of smaller issues, maybe a few big issues, but I'm curious about what you're looking at.

Rebecca Lewis: You know, just from my own coverage, good-cause eviction is a big one comes up pretty consistently. A bunch of local elected officials just put out a letter calling on the governor and Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Carl Hastie to support it at a statewide level because it's how the local laws are getting struck down with judges saying got to do it at the state level. So that continues to be a big issue for a lot of lawmakers.

The MTA is another big issue. It's an issue for the governor and everyone's on different sides. The governor wants New York City to pay for it, Mayor Adams doesn't want to pay for it, the legislators want to tax the rich and make busses free. So everyone's on different sides and the MTA needs money.

DC: The MTA is such a complicated issue because I feel like people outside of the MTA service zone do not care about the MTA. Like, I live in Albany, I care about the MTA because I am doing this job, but if I was not doing this job, I wouldn't care about the MTA. I'm wondering if that changes the dynamics of the conversations that people are having about that.

What do you think?

RL: I am born and raised downstate, took commuter rail, live in New York City, and it's so hard for me to tell because the MTA is everything. You know, if the LIRR (Long Island Railroad) is striking, you're not getting to work. If the trains aren't running, you're in the outer boroughs, you can't get into Manhattan you know.

I can't wrap my mind around people like you who live in Albany, people like you who don't have to worry about the MTA. So, we come back to upstate versus downstate issues and you really don't get much more downstate issues than the MTA, especially when the first thing that someone will probably think of the MTA is New York City and the subways. And if you live in Albany, what do you care?

DC: Right, exactly. I mean, on a grander scale, I should say that people outside of the service zone should care because for one, the money that you're going towards the MTA, you either have to raise it somehow and that could affect people upstate or you have to cut from somewhere else, and that could affect people upstate. So, it's something that people should watch.

Also not to mention that the MTA is literally the lifeblood of New York City, and if it failed or continues to fail I should say, the economy of the city just can't grow and recover. So super-duper important.

Josh, turning back to you, besides the bail reform issue, what are you watching over the night?

JS: Just one other piece on the MTA, it's so tied to the controversial element of the governor's housing plan, and I think that is what she has pitched to us as her top issue. That's what's going to end up what a lot of negotiations are about, well, I want to keep this intact, so what about this and what about that?

Maybe with bail, we're going to talk about housing vouchers and additional money for that. Maybe we'll give you a little this for a little of that.

We saw the governor being willing to do some horse-trading last year, including with the Buffalo Bills Stadium. So, I'm curious about what kind of last-minute developments happen on that budget and how housing plays into it.

DC: That's a really good point, because as our viewers may remember, last year, the bail issue really didn't pop up significantly until I think to maybe one week before the budget, or maybe I'm thinking of the Buffalo Bills stadium that came up days before the budget.

JS: The Bills the governor said was because of the timing with the NFL and when everything came into line which just happened to be the week before the budget that she then announced, we've struck a deal and this is how much money we're going to give, and the lawmakers said what? We're giving $1 billion for what? Where's that coming from in the budget? Haven't we just been negotiating for $1 billion for childcare, healthcare, you know and so that played a last-minute role in that she hadn't tipped that hand earlier.

DC: It should be noted that the lawmakers eventually went along with it. They were very surprised but acquiesced to that through the deal in some form of that.

So, what I'm really looking at right now in Albany is the power dynamics between the governor and the legislature. Under Andrew Cuomo, there was a lot of power for the governor in the budget process, and there still is that statutory power for the governor and the precedent there. But I'm wondering as things move forward, as the far-left flank of the legislature continues to grow, if that dynamic changes.

Josh, what do you think about that?

JS: I think that what we're seeing from Senate Democrats so far is that they're aware of kind of the power that they have at the moment. After the rejection in Justice LaSalle, they really flexed their power and they'll very quick to tell you that, hey, we outperformed the governor on the ballot. We were down ballot, and we did better than her through and through, and she didn't necessarily stump for us. So, we don't necessarily need to listen to what her priorities are. We can listen to what our constituents priorities are.

So, I think they're going to try to have some type of big show of their power.

DC: I think so too, and you're absolutely right that some of them were very upset that the governor did not do more to campaign for the state Senate Democrats in particular, or visit regions of the state where there were competitive races like in the lower Hudson Valley with former state Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick. I mean, that's a perfect example there.

Hochul didn't go into Rockland County, and he blamed his loss basically on that.

Rebecca, I want to give you the last word as we're looking over these next few weeks, there have been some shakeups in the Hochul administration. This is year two as we're looking at how they are doing this process.

How do you view that right now? Does it seem to be, you know, the trains a little bit more on the tracks this year or not?

RL: It's so hard to say. Going back just about the relationship between the governor and the legislature, this is her first real year as governor you know. She's been elected, she's got four years, she doesn't have to worry about a reelection, and she starts it with what turned out to largely be a pointless fight over Justice LaSalle for Chief Judge.

It leaves a lot of people questioning who's giving her this advice. Is this her decision making, is this decision making from people in her administration that she's listening to? Seeing these shakeups happening in her administration, especially at such a crucial time, less than a month before the budget, it leads to more questions about what is happening on the second floor behind those closed doors.

Does she have reliable people who are giving her good advice, or is it still sort of figuring out how to be the governor of New York? Which is fair, you know she's still newly elected, but she's been doing it for close to two years now. It certainly doesn't inspire the most amount of confidence, especially from other officials in the capital.

DC: Yeah, I hear a lot of the same things. So, I guess we'll see how that shakes out in the next couple of weeks.

Rebecca Lewis from City and State, Josh Salmon from the Times Union, thank you both so much for being here. I appreciate it.

Dan Clark: Last week about Governor Hochul’s proposal to raise taxes on cigarettes and ban menthol-flavored tobacco. Just a quick recap that under that proposal, the tax on a pack of cigarettes would go up a dollar to $5.35.

Last week we told you about how convenience stores are against that because it would cut into their revenue. This week we spoke to supporters of Hochul’s proposal. Like Hochul, they say that raising the cigarette tax and banning menthol will get more people to stop smoking. That has worked before in New York.

Two decades ago, New York City increased the local tax on cigarettes. At the time, the tax had gone from $0.08 per pack to $1.50. At the same time, the state also banned smoking in the workplace. By 2004, according to the US CDC, nearly 200,000 people in New York City had stopped smoking, and according to a survey done by the city Health Department, the higher tax was a big part of that.

Nearly half of those asked, about 45%, said it was the higher tax that drove them to quit or at least try. Supporters say Hochul’s proposal would do the same and reverse decades of targeting toward black New Yorkers.

Shanequa Charles is one of those supporters. She lost her mother to smoking related illness.

Shanequa Charles: We know that it's intentional, we know that you are targeting us, we know that you don't mean us any good. So, this is why on this day, here on this property, and this location in Albany, we are saying that we're not going to take it anymore. We hope that you will have the courage to stand up.

DC: More on that in the coming weeks as the state budget comes together.

Dan Clark: We told you a lot about what matters to New York City in this year's state budget. And that's because some of the big controversial issues this year affect New York City more than the rest of the state, like how Governor Hochul and lawmakers are working on new funding for the MTA or how charter schools want to expand in New York City. Those issues matter upstate as well, just in different ways.

But as longtime Capitol watchers know, when New York City issues come up, they have a habit of dominating the conversation, and sometimes that can leave upstaters feeling shortchanged. So, this week, we wanted to speak to someone about what matters to upstaters in this year's state budget.

For that, we turned to Justin Wilcox, who leads Upstate United, an advocacy group for issues upstate.

Justin, thank you so much for being here.

Justin Wilcox: Well, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

DC: I want to talk to you about what upstaters want in this year's legislative session. I think that you have your finger on the pulse of what upstaters are looking for this year more than a lot of people. Tell me, what are they looking for?

Yeah, you know what we've seen in the Siena poll is upstaters really care about the cost of living, and frankly the same for our businesses in upstate New York, it's the cost of doing business in the state. So, the concerns that I'm hearing about from taxpayers, residents, businesses, employees and employers, it's really the same. It's the cost of living in New York and the cost of doing business in New York.

DC: You know, one issue that New Yorkers are facing right now with inflation is kind of this issue of where wages are. The governor has a proposal in her state of the state and the state budget this year to tie the minimum wage to inflation moving forward, which means that basically as inflation goes up, the minimum wage would go up with it.

What do you think about that proposal? How would it affect upstaters?

JW: Look, let me just say the proposed increased minimum wage, which is really close to $15 across the state, we're still a little bit behind in upstate New York, I think we're like $14.25 while the rest of the state is at $15. At a time when we are facing inflation, the Federal Reserve, to combat that is trying to take money out of the economy and what we're doing in New York to combat inflation, it’s negative effect is to add money into the economy, to put more money in people's hands and to do that through employers who are going to be forced to increase their prices. So the problem is this.

It's not a good policy tool to even address what it is that policymakers say they're addressing. So often we hear that we need to use the minimum wage as a policy tool to address poverty. Unfortunately, the minimum wage is a very blunt tool to do that because it's oftentimes going into households that live

well above poverty rate. There's a much better policy tool that most economists would say does work to fight inflation. I'm sorry not inflation, fight poverty and not and not add to inflation, and that's the earned income tax credit.

That’s going to go directly into the hands of those who need it. We know that's going to go to certain households that have certain levels of income. So, it's a precise tool to address poverty.

DC: So, you think that would be more effective than raising the minimum wage and tying it to inflation, just having a tax credit instead? Would that be enough, you think, to kind of make people whole, or do you like to see more than that?

JW: Look, in terms of making people whole, that's got to be really difficult because again, there's inflationary pressures at play. But if you're really trying to address poverty, you should probably try to get more money into the hands of those who are in poverty, not just more money into the hands of people currently making minimum wage. They're not the same.

I also have to point out in talking to a lot of not-for-profits, this is going to actually squeeze them as well. A lot of the folks that work for not-for-profit agencies do make around the minimum wage, and what's going to happen is these not-for-profits are going to be forced to constrain their costs in one way or another, either by laying off employees or making folks part time.

DC: Before we were recording this interview, we were talking about manufacturers in New York and kind of the different industries that have left New York and maybe are not able to grow here. We were we were talking before about individuals in terms of the minimum wage, a little bit about businesses. When we talk about those businesses that don't seem to be able to make a lot of progress here, what do you think the state needs to do about that?

JW: Well, look, I would like to put this conversation in some context. Being from Rochester, New York, I have seen Kodak, Eastman Kodak go from 62,000 employees in the Rochester area to 1300. That's a significant change. There's a lot of factors that play into that, it's not simply just being here in New York that led to that kind of decrease, but it's sort of the environment that we're facing. It's globalization, it's the fact that a lot of our companies are facing competitors with lower costs.

So, New York businesses are facing a ton of cost increases, whether it's unemployment insurance, whether it's minimum wage, or whether we're talking about some of the impacts of the CLCPA, the Climate Leadership Community Protection Act. We just recently saw the PSC, Public Service Commission, approve in the last couple of weeks a huge increase on people's bills.

You're going to see increases between, I believe, anywhere from 3 to 16% in upstate New York. The 16% is really targeted at industrial users of energy, and that's going to make it really tough for folks and for businesses to pay those bills.

What we're likely to see as a result of that increased pressure on the business is those prices are going to get passed along to consumers. It's the cumulative effect of all of these things that is really difficult for New Yorkers.

DC: In terms of the PSC vote when we're looking at utilities and things like that, do you think the burden in helping consumers and ratepayers, do you think that lies with the PSC or is it with these utility companies? I mean, as I'm looking at my National Grid bill, I just see it keep on going up and up and up and genuinely, I could not tell you if that is a problem with National Grid or the PSC.

JW: That's a great question, Dan, and I'm glad you asked it because the fact is the PSC and utilities had no choice but to address the transmission lines and the need to upgrade transmission in order to comply with the CLCPA. So, what we have is the PSC acting as a de facto taxing authority and it leads people to get upset with the PSC and get upset with the utilities when in fact this is 100% the result of the legislature and their unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions.

DC: It's really interesting, and I'm sure it's an issue that a lot of New Yorkers are interested in, especially in the next couple of years as we see the state's Climate Action Council's scoping plan start to take effect.

Justin Wilcox from Upstate United, thank you so much.

JW: Thank you.

DC: There are plenty of other issues for upstaters to look out for in the coming weeks as well. Issues like education aid and infrastructure will also be part of the state budget. More on that over the next few weeks.

Dan Clark: Returning to New York by The Numbers, a segment where we tell you about something coming out of Albany using a number. This week that number is 38, remember that.

We're actually using that number to follow up on a segment from a few weeks ago. Long story short, three years ago, the state created a plan for cutting costs in Medicaid, and part of that plan that takes effect April 1st would change how Medicaid pays for prescription drugs. New York is moving to a fee for service model called NYRX. But what does that even mean?

Basically, it allows the state to directly negotiate drug prices, and that could save the state money, which is the whole point of the change. It would also allow Medicaid recipients to use more pharmacies, which is super important in rural areas where healthcare can be really hard to find. Pharmacists want the change because allowing the state to negotiate drug prices directly rather than going through so-called pharmacy benefit managers will actually put more money in their pockets through higher reimbursement rates. That brings us to the number 38.

Steve Moore, a pharmacist from Plattsburgh says the Medicaid reimbursement rates under the current model just don't cut it.

Steve Moore: On average, we're getting a $0.50 dispensing fee. I had a prescription the other day that was reimbursed at $0.38 total. 30 days supply of medication for patient’s heart medication, and it was $0.38. So, it’s tough. We've got rising minimum wage and, you know, do you really want your pharmacy employees to be minimum wage employees?

DC: One side effect of the change that we told you about a few weeks ago is that it would cut off certain safety net funding for community health organizations in a federal program called 340B. The state has said they'll help those groups bridge that gap, but that's not guaranteed. So those groups want to stop the change.

We'll know more when the state budget is approved, hopefully at the end of March.

Dan Clark: Advocates are pushing a shift in state government that they say would drive more than $2 billion in federal funding into the state's coffers. That would happen through something called data matching. Right now, New York administers certain federal safety net programs and approves people based on eligibility.

Among those programs are the Medicare Savings Program, the Home Energy Assistance Program, and SNAP (food stamps). The thing about these programs is that the eligibility requirements are pretty similar across the board. So, if you qualify for one of them, you may very well qualify for the others as well. But a lot of people don't know that.

So, a coalition of groups led by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) are calling on the state to do something called data matching. Basically, if someone's in one of these programs, advocates say the state could proactively see if they qualify for the other ones and let them know.

Beth Finkel is the New York state director at AARP.

Beth Finkel: Why aren’t we accessing benefits to all people, older adults who are eligible? The short answer is we can, and we should. Tapping this federal aid would not only help hundreds of thousands of low and middle income New Yorkers, but would also drive more money through economic stimulus into the state coffers, and to help us address other state budget needs.

DC: Again, that would be federal funding, not state funding.

In a statement, the Hochul administration said, “New Yorkers can currently apply for multiple benefits, including public assistance, SNAP, Medicaid, childcare, and other services by completing one application. Federal regulations strictly limit how information on SNAP recipients can be shared with other programs, but we remain committed to seeking ways to expand access to all benefits by increasing coordination and data sharing among programs.”

A spokesperson for the State Department of Health said they're reviewing the proposal.

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