By Kathryn G. Menu
The New York State Assemblyman and Sag Harbor Village Attorney talks about what state government must contend with in a dismal budget year and how Governor Andrew Cuomo will bring a sense of leadership to New York State government.
How has New York State government changed with the last election, including that of newly inaugurated Governor Andrew Cuomo?
I think the two biggest changes are the election of Governor Cuomo and the change in leadership in the New York State Senate from a Democratically controlled senate to one ruled by the Republicans. This is what will shape the coming year in Albany. With Governor Cuomo, the general consensus is Governor David Patterson was a nice guy, and people liked him, but he was not up to the challenges of being a governor and I believe there was a lack of leadership. Now we will have a new direction and a stronger leadership as we face some really difficult problems and I think we are already seeing some of the results of that leadership in some of the proposals Governor Cuomo has already made. The real property tax cap is really important for Long Island, and he is also talking about the kind of ethics reform needed to restore confidence and trust in Albany. The biggest issue, of course, is the state’s finances. In a sense, for Long Island, the change of power in the state senate is just as important as the election of the new governor. My interest isn’t who has power – Democrats or Republicans – as an Independent. My major concern is geography. In the last two years, state government has been dominated by interests from New York City at the expense of Long Island taxpayers. We will now have a greater voice for Long Island, from everything from school aid to aid for our local hospitals. We are going through a period with diminished resources and there are going to be cuts, but it is important the resources we do have are expended fairly and Long Island has gotten short shrift in the last two years.
Governor Cuomo has vowed to fight for a two percent cap on property tax growth, meaning, if passed, school districts and municipalities across the East End will be limited on any increases in spending. Do you support this measure?
I do. I also support a tax cap that limits that spending, but also gets state government off the backs of school districts and municipalities with unfunded state mandates. I believe we do need the tax cap, but we also need to give local governments more flexibility to allow them to be more efficiently run.
With a proposed property tax cap that low and with school districts seeing sometimes double digit increases in health insurance costs as well as employee benefits, could this have an impact on the quality of public education on the East End?
I think that clearly it could. People simply don’t have the money so we have to spend less. We are not only looking at a cap in property taxes, but also less in the way of state aid for school districts, which is why we have to allow them the freedom to be more efficient in how they use their dollars. That means the need for things like pension reform and taking a closer look at health care costs. We can’t just look at one piece of the puzzle here. If you look at school districts, their expenditures have far outpaced inflation in the last 20 years, and we are not talking about a reduction, just a cap. It is long overdue. And we must tackle the issue of these state mandates, these fixed costs, which are not only strangling school districts and municipalities, but also the state. We did pass pension reform last year, but that is looking into the future. It does not help with 2011. The governor has also vowed to not raise taxes, citing the weak economy, meaning spending will have to be slashed on the state level. Where do you cut? First of all, I think we have made cuts already. We cut school aid last year, and Medicaid, and those things will be cut again this year. We also have to cut the size of our bureaucracy. That was not something Governor Patterson did well. We are asking local governments and school districts to consolidate services, and the state will have to do the same thing. Governor Cuomo announced this morning he will be taking a five percent cut in salary, so we do have to lead by example. I am not saying we are not going to make cuts and it is not going to be painful, but we do have to cut spending while also looking to the future. We need a strategic economic plan, that addresses issues like the college in Southampton. That is something that could generate the economy and jobs in the long run.
Where does higher learning at Stony Brook –Southampton stand?
One part is the legal side, and there is still a court case pending as to whether the second time Stony Brook voted to close the college was done in correct procedure, but that will not be the main event. The main event will be discussions (New York State) Senator Ken LaValle and I have with Stony Brook University during the state budget process. The Senator, myself and Congressman Tim Bishop are committed to reopening that college, but the question is how it is done. The changes in power at the state senate level are probably not more important to any one issue on the East End as the college. Senator LaValle has not been the chairman of the state’s higher education committee, but will most likely be appointed that position now as the ranking Republican. I think that will help a lot. Ultimately, the future of the college will be largely determined through the state budget process. The state college system has a lot it wants to ask of the legislature, and it will have a lot to ask of the state college system. Ethics reform is also at the top of the governor’s agenda. How necessary is ethics reform on the state level? What problems have we seen and how will this protect taxpayers? The biggest problem is that, until the last election, more members of the state legislature have left office through the criminal justice system then through the ballot box. For someone like myself, who has held town and county office, on the East End the public holds officials up to a high standard and if you violate that you are out. In Albany, it’s embarrassing. The biggest part is offering taxpayers full disclosure. I have no problem disclosing all of my sources of income, and releasing my tax information. This is about openness and transparency. But it is not just okay to have rules, you have to enforce them. There has been a feeling that we have the fox watching the chicken coop in Albany. There is no real enforcement, everyone just winks and nods. I believe that is something the governor will need to provide in his leadership. We need to set up an independent body to enforce this and not have a legislature responsible for enforcing its own code.
What are some of the initiatives you hope to take on this year as you continue to serve the East End in the New York State Assembly?
Certainly, locally, for me the biggest priority is the college. It is an integral part of life here on the East End, but it is also important for our economy. That is the biggest issue. The economy in general is something I will focus on. I would like to work with state government, with what every economic development programs arise, to apply those monies towards proposals like a commercial park at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. Infrastructure is also important. We may have done some patching, but we need to repave Route 27 from Southampton to Montauk. My job is about promoting some of the large issues, but most importantly, it is to ensure that state government works for our local communities