Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 2)

Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 2)

Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 2)
January 5, 2015

On the last day of 2014, City & State Albany Bureau Chief Jon Lentz spoke with Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos about his party’s victories during the fall elections and the upcoming 2015 legislative session. The following is the second installment of a multi-part, edited interview.

C&S: Why didn’t pay raises for state lawmakers get done in 2014?

DS: I think the reason, very simply, is that the governor didn’t want to do it. That’s about as direct as I can be. We were willing to do a lot of reform, and the governor basically said, “That’s not enough.” And I think just deep down he did not want to do it.

C&S: Should there be an independent body that determines pay for lawmakers?

DS: Yeah, and I think that’s something that we should discuss in the upcoming session, because there cannot be a pay raise now for two years—setting up an independent commission to make recommendations as to not just legislator’s salaries, but certainly commissioners and others within the executive branch who are locked in at those numbers. 

A couple years ago we separated out the judiciary. The judiciary didn’t get an increase if the Senate didn’t get an increase, or the Assembly didn’t—that was just wrong. So now there’s a judicial pay commission that meets every two or four years and makes recommendations, and it takes it somewhat out of the political process. So I think that’s something that we should consider doing in the next legislative session.

C&S: Joe Bruno, your predecessor, was acquitted in 2014 after two trials. How do you think he was treated during this process?

DS: I can’t just second guess what a prosecutor wants to do. I think the retrial was unnecessary. I have a lot of respect for Joe, but that is a decision that a prosecutor makes, whether they go to a grand jury or they re-indict somebody. My personal opinion, after the Supreme Court made that decision, is that should have been the end of it. But again, I’m not a federal prosecutor and they make those decisions.

C&S: There has been a lot of discussion in Albany about ethics and corruption in recent years. Was the case against Joe Bruno a turning point?

DS: There are always going to be some bad apples, whether it’s in a corporation, whether it’s in the Legislature, in all walks of life. We’ve passed a lot of legislation in terms of ethics reform—JCOPE. A number of the ethics reforms and disclosure reforms actually came under Joe Bruno when he was leader. So we passed an awful lot of reform, and if there’s more that we can do in terms of transparency and other things, we should do it.

C&S: Is public financing of campaigns completely off the table in 2015?

DS: Oh, absolutely. And it’s not just me taking it off the table. This is one of the issues we had in the campaign. The voters took it off the table by bringing us into a Senate majority when Jonathan Soros, Bill de Blasio, NYSUT, UFT, all these groups came after us, and one of their main issues was taxpayer financing of elections. So in my opinion this was soundly rejected by the voters. They really believe that there are other ways and better ways that you can spend about $200 million.

C&S: Apart from policy questions about how taxpayer money is spent, would public financing be a threat, potentially hurting Republicans more than Democrats?

DS: No. First of all, I don’t believe that’s the issue. We have independent expenditure groups right now that basically do what they want to do as long as they don’t coordinate with candidates. We see that the unions have put millions upon millions of dollars against us in terms of NYSUT. The independent expenditure groups, the way that is right now, basically if you limit what we can raise, then they’re going to run the government and they’re going to run campaigns. So whether it’s the Senate Republican Campaign Committee or the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, if the state committees can raise money, we then are not necessarily beholden to these independent expenditure groups. Jonathan Soros put tons of money into different campaigns because he wanted taxpayer financing. We had to have the ability to raise that money to compete with the Jonathan Soroses.

C&S: There are a number of issues that Democrats pushed for and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he would push for, including another minimum wage hike, public financing of campaigns, the Dream Act and the full 10-point Women’s Equality Act. Are all of those off the table now? Could any of those be part of a compromise? 

DS: The Dream Act, or paying the tuition of people who are here illegally—that’s off the table. And that was one of our campaigns that the voter out there basically said, “You know, I’m getting student loans and others who are not here legally are going to get a free education.” That did not resonate well. So that to me is off the table. 

What we should be looking at is college affordability for kids so that they can get the education, and parents are not burdened—and the kids—by all these student loans. I have one person that works for me, who went to college, went to law school. He’s got probably $150,000 in student loans that he’s going to be paying for the next 20 years. So what we have to look at is college affordability. Why does tuition skyrocket the way it does all the time and what can we do to help the middle-income families send their kids to college and not be burdened with this for the next 20 to 30 years? That’s what we should be looking at in terms of college affordability.

C&S: And the minimum wage?  

DS: Minimum wage is going up tonight. And then it’s going up at the end of the year again. I know that when we passed it, this was an agreement with Speaker Silver, myself, Jeff Klein and the governor. As a matter of fact, Jeff Klein at times called it a robust increase in the minimum wage.

So, you know, it’s something that we’ll always look at. I never say never to anything, but we’re just going through an increase process right now, and my experience is that if you went to $10.10 like a lot of people are talking about, then they would say that’s not enough, that it should be$12.10. So what the Senate does is we try to balance between people being able to have a decent income and most people in New York State who are paid above the minimum wage. A lot of the minimum wage earners are actually young people, college students. Many of them would lose their jobs if the minimum wage went up too dramatically. But you want to strike a balance between, yes, helping people get a decent income, but also making sure that others don’t lose their jobs because of that.

C&S: And the Women’s Equality Act?

DS: The nine points, we will do them again. The 10th point, which would allow late-term abortion up until the point of birth and non-doctors to perform abortions—we will not do that.

To read the first part of this interview, click here.

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s former editor-in-chief.