Rep. Dan Donovan on the GOP tax plan, Michael Grimm and 'SNL'

Rep. Dan Donovan was one of the most vocal opponents of the Republican tax plan that passed the House this week. In an interview with City & State’s Grace Segers, Donovan explained why he opposes the bill and how it will affect his constituents. He also discussed his thoughts on the 2018 election and former Rep. Michael Grimm’s primary challenge, and his reaction to a certain Staten Island-themed “Saturday Night Live” skit.

C&S: How would the tax plan, as passed in the House, affect your constituents?

DD: To many of my constituents, it's going to end up in a tax increase. The tax plan as it stands now, about 46 states will receive a benefit over 10 years of about $100 billion in less taxes they’ll be paying. Four states will end up paying close to $17 billion more in taxes, and New York happens to be one of those four states, the others being California, Maryland and New Jersey. The elimination of the state and local tax deduction, the deduction in the amount of money that people are going to be able to deduct on their mortgage interests, the cap of $10,000 in which people can deduct their property taxes, and the elimination of the personal exemption – a family of four, that’s $16,200 that they can deduct right now – even if they take the standard deduction, that's going to be eliminated. So, the tax cuts for the rest of America seem to be being paid for by those four states.

C&S: Do you think that the repeal of the state and local tax deduction will be included in the final version of the bill?

DD: I’m not sure. My hope is that it’s restored. The income tax is completely gone, the deduction. And the property tax is capped at a $10,000 deduction. The Senate bill doesn't even have the property tax in it. It has no relief for people paying state and local taxes, so it’s completely gone in the Senate version. In that respect, the Senate bill is even worse than the House bill. But I believe that there are members of Congress, at least in the House, who voted yes on the tax plan (who) were told that when the two bills go into conference – obviously these two bills don’t mirror one another. So the Senate passes their bill next week, you have two bills that don’t mirror each other, they have to go to conference to work out their differences. I think that there are people who are hopeful that the SALT deduction and some of their other concerns will be addressed in that conference, and we’ll have to wait and see if that’s actually going to happen or not.

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C&S: Have you spoken with any of the representatives from New York who voted for the bill, to see –

DD: Everybody – this issue is so parochial – everybody has to vote in the manner in which they think is best for their constituents. Four folks from New York who voted for it, and there’s one Republican member from New Jersey who voted for it – the other four Republicans from New Jersey voted no as well for similar reasons that I voted no – you’d have to ask them their reasoning for voting for it. I would suspect – I don’t know for sure – that they could believe this helps their constituents. But until the vote actually happened, we weren’t sure how some members were going to vote. I think it was very clear that two of our members from the Republican delegation were going to be yeses, and myself, Pete King, and Lee Zeldin were very vocal about our opposition to the elimination of the state and local tax deduction and some other things. And then Elise Stefanik from upstate and John Faso from upstate also voted no. I suspect they’re very concerned about the elimination as well.

C&S: Do you think that the tax plan, if passed with the SALT deduction repeal, will be a factor in the 2018 election in New York?

DD: It’s hard to say. The election is a long way off. But I think constituents are able to determine – and voters are very smart – determine that the person that they elected stands up for them. The person that they sent down to be their voice expressed their concerns, and their interests, and had their best interest when they voted. So I think that the voters will do an analysis of how well they were represented by the person they sent down there and vote accordingly. Whether or not there’s certain people who voted yes, and it was bad for their constituents, or people who voted no and their constituents think this is a good bill – I think those are people who will probably be more concerned. And someone like myself, who believes that I was representing the people that sent me there to represent them, and I was their voice opposing this, because it is the deduction that is the No. 1 most common deduction used by New Yorkers. It’s something that’s been in the tax code since 1913. And the ’86 reform, when Ronald Reagan reformed the tax code, the state and local tax deduction was kept in there. That’s how important this is. The result of eliminating this deduction ends up being a double taxation on people. People in New York will be taxed on money they don’t have because they paid that money in taxes for their state and local municipalities. So there’s federalism here involved, and I suspect that’s why it was first put into the tax code, that our government won’t take what is rightfully the state’s. Taxing people on money that they’ve already paid taxes on is double taxation. It's wrong.

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C&S: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney argued that New York just has high taxes –  

DD: We do have high taxes. And a lot of the reason why we have such high taxes is because of how much money we send down to Washington, D.C. New York is a donor state. Every dollar we send to Washington, we get 79 cents back. Mick Mulvaney’s state (of South Carolina), where he comes from, actually benefits because they get more back in federal resources than they send to Washington. This will just cause New Yorkers to pay even more for the benefit of other people’s tax deductions.

C&S: Do you think that there is anything that you and other representatives from those four states you mentioned can do to ensure that the SALT deduction will remain part of the tax code?

DD: Again, I don’t know what would change the minds of the 13 people who voted no already. If no Democrats vote for this bill in the House, you need 218 members to vote yes. So if 23 members of the House (Republican conference) vote no, the bill fails. Right now 13 members voted no, unless the SALT deduction is reinstated, and maybe some other things as well – the mortgage interest, the ability to deduct medical expenses is gone, interest on student loans is gone. As people examine this and find more and more things that get eliminated, they may have different reasons for voting no. But if some of the members were promised or were given any indication that their concerns would be satisfied during the conference, and they're not, you might find some of those people who voted yes, in the hopes that it would be fixed, voting no because it wasn't fixed. Time will tell what happens there, but that’s one possibility.

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C&S: You're facing a primary challenge from Michael Grimm. What's your current strategy?

DD: I think we’re very confident. The people of Staten Island have a choice. Sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish between candidates. I think it’s very easy to distinguish between myself and Michael Grimm. I've served this community for well over 20 years, first as chief of staff to the borough president of Staten Island when we closed the largest environmental threat to our community, the Staten Island landfill. I was the deputy borough president right after the tragedy in lower Manhattan, 9/11, where Staten Island and Brooklyn lost over 400 members of our community in that tragedy. For 12 years I was the DA of Staten Island, helped make Staten Island the safest community in the safest big city in America, and as I said, I think that voters were well-represented for the last two and a half years of my service in Congress for our community. I think there’s a great difference between the two of us and I’m very confident that voters will see that difference.

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C&S: Do you think there’s any chance you’ll face a three-way race with you, a Democrat, and a candidate – perhaps Grimm – running on the Conservative Party line?

DD: Our goal is to win all the party lines that have supported me in the past. We’re going to be seeking the Republican nomination, the Conservative nomination, the Independence nomination and the Reform Party. Again, these are constituents that I have represented in some form or manner over the last 20-some-odd years. So we’re pretty confident regardless of what party someone is affiliated with or a member of, that they will see my record and vote accordingly.

C&S: Did you see the “Saturday Night Live” skit this past Saturday on Staten Island?

DD: Yeah, I did see it. Yes.

C&S: What was your opinion on it?

DD: It’s my hope that Pete Davidson was doing that skit in jest, and I think it’s horrible to call our police officers and firefighters racist. These are women and men who run into burning buildings, or run into someone’s home when they’re in need or in danger, who when someone’s shooting a gun runs towards that gunfire, not away from it. To demean them, to categorize them as racist, is unfair. It’s – I’m trying to look for the right word, because “unfair” doesn’t even come near it. And it’s shameful is what it actually is. And Pete Davidson’s dad, although I didn’t know him, was a firefighter who was one of those heroes who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Although I didn’t know him, his bravery is something that this city will always honor, respect and be grateful for. And it’s a shame that his son would say that about his dad’s fellow firefighters. 

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