Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 3)

Taking the Lead: A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 3)

A Q&A with Dean Skelos (Part 3)
January 6, 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 final installment of a multi-part, edited interview.

C&S: On the state Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, the governor recently appointed a Democrat to replace Republican Justice Victoria Graffeo, and I think you were disappointed that Graffeo was not re-appointed?

DS: Yeah, I’m very disappointed. There really has been a tradition, when it comes to the Court of Appeals, and in fact with the Court of Claims also, that if you’re qualified, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, even if the governor’s from the opposite party, that they’re reappointed. And certainly Judge Graffeo was the most qualified of all those who are being recommended. The Bar Association, everybody and I, think the governor was just wrong in not reappointing him.

C&S: There will be other openings in coming years. Are you concerned that the Court of Appeals could shift to the left?

DS: It’s certainly going to become Democratic. I would say in the next term it will probably be just about all Democrat. The governor should appoint some Republicans on it. And to me a court, especially a highest court, should have some philosophical balance also—that’s what people look for. The courts should not be philosophically extreme on one side. That seems to be the direction that it seems to be going in right now.

C&S: How should the $5.1 billion from bank settlements be used?

DS: That should be used for one shots, not put it into something that becomes recurring. Infrastructure, sewers, bridges—but it all should be geared towards economic development. I don’t believe that we should just be giving money to some municipalities for repaving, for state of repair. This has to be for true infrastructure that will lead towards economic development, maybe more construction. Some of the biggest costs that developers have are the infrastructure, the sewers, storm water, that type of thing. So to encourage development, I think that’s where the money should be directed. And we read all the time about what’s happening with that system that has crumbled. 

C&S: The economy is improving across the nation and in New York, and it’s a very different situation than it was four years ago, when Cuomo started his first term with a $10 billion budget gap. With more revenue coming in, will it be harder to maintain fiscal restraint like Cuomo has done while partnering with your conference?

DS: Well, I think it’s important that we stay within the 2 percent, self-imposed spending cap. When we’re asking other municipalities to stay within the tax cap, I think we have to set the example in terms of our general fund spending. Certainly, the settlement money, I take that outside of the budget because that’s going to be specifically targeted. But in terms of maintaining the Medicaid growth at 4 percent, maintaining total state spending growth at under 2 percent like we’ve done, having our fifth on-time budget after four on-time budgets—I think that those should continue to be a priority. When you go on spending sprees when the money’s there, that’s when you start making a long-term mistake.

C&S: Will it be harder to do that now?

DS: In certain ways it is, but we have to show the restraint, quite honestly, and how we target it. And the targeting of that money, again, should be about New York State being affordable. We see how we’re bleeding citizens to other states because of taxes, because people just can’t afford to stay here anymore. Whether it’s a young couple or a senior citizen, they’re leaving the state. We are now fourth in population to Florida, so we’ve got to stop that, and the way you stop that is by making the state affordable at all levels of government, but also by having good paying jobs in the state.

C&S: What kind of tax cuts would you like to see?

DS: In terms of tax cuts, again they should be geared towards job creation. We have to look at the upstate communities—the Southern Tier, which is suffering in terms of jobs, to encourage manufacturing. We have to bring down energy costs, because that’s a critical part of job creation, and ease the tax burden. We should bring down all levels of the personal income tax. 

C&S: The state recently banned hydrofracking, which was seen by some as a possible way to boost the economy in the Southern Tier. Was that the right decision?

DS: I think the governor was wrong. That was the one thing that could really save the Southern Tier of the state. I believe that under Gov. Paterson, there was a report that said it was safe. The federal government has indicated that hydrofracking is safe. We see that it’s safe in 30 other states, and in terms of the high paying jobs it would have created in the Southern Tier, it would have been enormous. So now it’s going to continue in Pennsylvania, and in other states—and not only the high paying jobs, the revenue that it would have brought into the state. If the governor was hesitant, you could have had a pilot project, you could have had a certain area—there are things that could have been done to see if it was safe. And I do believe it’s safe. I don’t think President Obama would be saying it’s safe if he didn’t believe it was safe.

C&S: DEC Commissioner Joe Martens emphasized during the state’s recent presentation on hydrofracking that there is so much of the Southern Tier that is already off limits that legalizing it would have had a limited impact. He also noted that the price of natural gas has plummeted, which would reduce the potential economic benefits.

DS: I don’t think that most people in the Southern Tier, especially those who are unemployed or making $25,000 or $30,000 a year right now would agree with that analysis.

C&S: Has the casino siting process worked well?

DS: Once the referendum was passed and once people were appointed, I completely divorced myself from the process. And I think that’s appropriate. I don’t know that the governor totally divorced himself from the process, but I know that I did.

C&S: Taking that into account, were you happy with the outcome?

DS: Sullivan County was certainly appropriate. They need the help there. In the Southern Tier, I thought that one should have gone in the Tioga Downs area or something. That seems to be reconsidered. I really don’t know much about the Schenectady selection. So again, I truly divorced myself from the process and I had no idea where it was going to go until the day it was announced.

C&S: You again will be one of the three men in the room negotiating the budget and other key bills. What are Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver like when you’re in there?

DS: The dialogue is actually more civil than people think it is. Once in a while we may get a little upset with each other, but it doesn’t really turn into screaming matches or anything like that. The governor, when you go in on an issue, is very well prepared. He is well briefed and very well prepared. Shelly has years of experience, so he tends to be a little quieter than the governor or myself. And certainly I’m still going through a learning curve, but I also know the direction that my conference wants to go. And that’s what’s important—not the direction that necessarily I want to go, but it's the direction that my conference wants to go. They elect me leader to represent them, and we’ve seen a lot of Republican ideas come into fruition. The property tax cap, that was ours—we passed it one house under David Paterson—and so many other things. 

To read the first three parts of this interview, click here, here and here.

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