Senate leader Dean Skelos meets with the editorial board for Q&A
This is an edited transcript of the Newsday editorial board's interview with Sen. Dean Skelos on Thursday at the newspaper's headquarters in Melville. Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) is the presumptive majority leader of the New York State Senate.
Board: Thank you for visiting with the editorial board. Do you want to start by giving us an overview of what lies ahead?
Skelos: The deficit, that's going to be the number one issue that we face this coming year, $9 to $10 billion. I've already had several conversations with Governor-elect Cuomo. Key staff people will start meetings tomorrow and try to figure out how we move forward. I can say every discussion we've had has been very positive.
Board: Have you had any discussions with Assembly Speaker (Sheldon) Silver?
Skelos: No. No. Right now we're dealing with the governor. We have some familiarity with Speaker Silver. We have none with the Governor-elect's team. I think that's where we're going to start off.
Board: Can you share with us any advice that you give the new governor?
Skelos: Be patient. What I told him is there is a desire within our conference to work with him. Certainly our message has been the same....We've talked about taxes, spending, private-sector job creation. If you look at the books he put out, a lot of the ideas he had there, especially in economic development, had been ours. And we've had the same message. And now the issue is staying on message with the governor, and hopefully Speaker Silver will come along. In terms of how to deal with deficit, we are very much in sync with each other.
Board: The top issue seems to be the property tax cap.
Skelos: Our first discussions again are going to start on Friday on that, and we'll see how it progresses. We've been supportive of that. We've passed it on a number of occasions, and certainly we'll be able to work out something with the governor.
Board: A cap of two percent, and a state spending cap, too?
Skelos: Yes, absolutely. We've said this all along. The state has to control its spending, too. You can't talk to other municipal entities and say you have to control your spending if we don't do it also. And certainly, there's no room for spending right now, or new spending.
Board: What kind of a battle will that be to get it passed?
Skelos: I don't think there has to be a battle. I think if there's a battle, it's going to be more between the governor and the speaker. I suggested to the governor-elect that the first thing we have to do is, between him and our conference, is understand where some of the pitfalls are, that regional needs, even if there's not going to be money and there's going to be cuts in spending, to make sure that you don't ignite one region of the state at the advantage of another.
Skelos: I think first of all, if there are going to be cuts, and you know there are going to be cuts in spending, in Medicaid, in education. The main thing is that Long Island be treated fairly, no differently than any other part of the state. When we lost the majority, and in 2009, when there were increases in aid to education, we got 5 percent, instead of our 13 percent, and when there were cuts in 2010, we had 15 percent of the cuts, as against the 13 percent share that you normally get. I think it's very important that the governor-elect understand that this is where problems can occur and to avoid them. . . .
Every region has to share the pain. It can't just be one region of the state feeling the pain. It has to be a shared pain, and that's going to happen this year.
If I'm correct I think, if the formula runs the way it would now, you would need an increase in aid to education in, I think it's $2.9 billion. So, that's part of what is driving the deficit, and certainly that's not political.
There's not going to be an increase this year. For people to think there's going to be an increase when you have a $10 billion deficit, it's just not going to happen.
Board: Can you maintain the current level?
Skelos: You know, I haven't gotten into it completely yet, but I think what you have to look at is how are you going to afford to pay that extra $2.9 billion. If the governor-elect has said no taxes, no taxes, no taxes, we certainly agree with that. So there is going to have to be a reduction in the total amount of school aid, health care and a lot of other programs in the state.
Board: What does that $2.9 billion represent?
Skelos: I believe the school aid formula, the way it is now, would show a growth of $2.9 billion over last year's funding. Remember that is part of the $9 billion projected deficit.
Board: Have you been talking to local governments and school districts about the property tax cap and the spending cap?
Skelos: Local governments are part of the governor's proposed spending cap. So I think that's something that's going to be discussed. The only way you can really have an effective spending cap, and I think most of the different municipal levels understand this, but there has to be mandate relief, too. So, you have to look at all of the different mandates that come from the state, whether it's Wicks, whether it's Triborough, all of these things have to be on the table as you move forward and discuss how we're going to get our fiscal house in order, but also, how are you going, if there is a cap on local governments, other than school districts, how are you going to make it workable for them. I'll give you an example. You have some counties - Rockland County, for example. Every single nickel of their property tax goes to Medicaid, and then I think another 10 percent of their sales tax revenue. So, when the law says you can only increase Medicaid spending on counties by 3 percent, and then you have a cap at 2 percent, you have to give them relief somewhere else.
Board: So Triborough is on the table so it can be trade-off for other concessions?
Skelos: I don't know the answer to that, but I think what's happening here and from what I see with the governor-elect, he is bringing the different groups to the table. And I think if they understand that the Senate and the Assembly are going to move in a direction of controlling spending, that they have to join the discussions or they won't have a voice at the final decision. . . . Everything has to be out there. You can't negotiate a budget by starting off by saying that's not there, that's not there. Everything has to be out there, and as you know, when you discuss a budget, it's give and take and it's compromise.
Board: So you are insistent that pension payments be under the property tax cap?
Skelos: Yes. Yes. You need a new tier and we have to look at a 401(k) type model. It's not affordable anymore.
Board: What about hybrid 401(k)s: part private investments, part public pension?
Skelos: I think we have to look at what's doable and how we start saving money. And that's where we're going to be. And that's the reality of where we are today.
Board: But that only saves money down the road. What can you do now?
Skelos: There are things you can do. You can cap overtime. If you look at (school) superintendents right now, your salary is $250,000 and then you fill in another $250,000 in benefits - buying a suit, getting a car. That should not be pensionable. It should be your basic salary, that's what should be pensionable.
Board: What is the view of the Republican conference on closing upstate prisons? Don't some of them have zero populations?
Skelos: Some of them are already closed. They did not have zero population. That was not correct in those stories about the youth detention center upstate. But if a prison is going to be closed, you also have to remember that that is an economic engine in many of those upstate communities. So you can't just go around the state destroying their economy, either. They depend on these prisons. So if something is going to be closed, you have to have a plan on how are you going to help that community.
There should be an economic plan for there, if you are going to close a prison. And there have been closures of prisons, but again, I think it has to be done in a thoughtful way, so that you do not destroy an economy upstate. Whether we appreciate it or not downstate, this is the employment sector and the economic engine in many of these communities. So you can't just walk away from the sector of the population and say you're gone. You have to look at that.
Board: How would you implement the economic development to create jobs?
Skelos: We haven't discussed it yet. This is, when I say everything is going to be out there, everything is going to be out there.
Board: But the government hasn't been very good about creating jobs.
Skelos: We've created too many jobs. The private sector is where that belongs. Again, this is going to be part of the discussion. How do you do it, I'm not exactly sure, but this has to be part of the discussion. Just to say, one day, to the community of Ogdensburg, "Your main employer, your main economic development engine, is gone tomorrow," I don't think that's how you do it.
Board: Is the desire to make the closing part of a large economic development plan the reason that the law requires a one-year notice before closing prisons?
Skelos: Yes. I think that's part of the intention of the one-year notice. Right now, we've checked it out. There's no intention of closing any more prisons on behalf of the current administration. But part of [the notice requirement] is to give a community an opportunity where the state can step in, and just say that this detention center is going to be closed, what can we possibly do? Can a developer come in and do something that's positive for that region, rather than, again, just shutting the doors and saying goodbye?
Board: So no prisons will be closed without an alternative economic driver in place?
Skelos: Right. You've got to, you have to look at alternatives. And you know, in my home community of Rockville Centre a number of years ago, they started closing down schools, and then all of a sudden, you have to start opening up or building new schools, or you are overpopulated. So we don't know the direction of things, that things are going to go in terms of prison population and stuff in the future. We see a downturn in the economy right now and crime is going up. In my community I've seen it going up.
Board: One of the major Republican campaign issues was repeal of the MTA tax. How do you do that and keep funding the megaprojects?
Skelos: Some of the megaprojects, I think, they have to be put on hold, not an East Side Access, but some of the other megaprojects may have to be put on hold. If there's one message that we've seen in this election and is just a constant, you don't raise taxes. And I think we've seen it for ourselves. (President) Obama has become a fiscal conservative who believes in capitalism and the Bush tax cuts, because he got the message. People do not want to see taxes raised. They can't afford it. It's destroying the economic viability of this state.
Board: So what will happen with the MTA tax? Will the Senate be like County Executive Mangano and the energy tax, repeal it on the first day?
Skelos: That's something I have to discuss with Governor Cuomo and will be discussing it with him. Remember, he puts out the first budget. We don't. And we will give him ideas of what we'd like to see happen, and then there'll be a discussion as to whether it can happen or it can't happen. But the first document comes from the governor.
Board: But if you can't close prisons upstate, how are you going to make even tougher decisions about funding the MTA?
Skelos: In upstate New York, the economy is decimated. It's decimated. And I think we have an obligation, if we're going to be one state, that we don't totally decimate their economy.
A tough decision was made about New York City OTB, wasn't it, last week. Do you want to see the demonstrators in front of my office right now?
Board: So what is going to happen to the city OTB? Will it be revived?
Skelos: I think there's an opportunity here to really look at the whole racing, gambling type industry in New York State, rather than rewarding failure and the state rewarding failure and somehow put it altogether to make it viable. That's it. You can't, if everything is patchwork.
When OTB came it, it was supposed to be for real property tax relief Seventy percent of the money was going to the local governments and the counties. I think it's now 11 percent. That's not what OTB was supposed to be about, and that's not what gambling is supposed to be about, or racing - I shouldn't just say gambling. You have to look at the whole racing industry and see how do you make it work. And it can't be just by rewarding failure. One year the breeders need a little more money, so you take from OTB. The next year NYRA needs a little more money, so you take from OTB. You have to see if there's a way to make it work. And that's what we're going to try to do. I'm not a gambler. I don't know much about racing or anything like that, but I know the way the system has been patchworked together, it's not working.
Board: The Shinnecock Indians will soon have the right to build a full casino. The state must approve. Where do you think it should be located?
Skelos: I think the perfect spot would be Belmont. Because it's a destination. It's Belmont Racetrack, it's convenient, in terms of transportation. You have rail links that are coming in there and it would be economic development for Elmont and neighboring communities. The communities want something to happen there. It's not like in other communities throughout the state where people say we don't want it, like on the East End. People don't want casinos. Here, people want something to happen and it's an opportunity for jobs. It helps the school districts, helps the localities and really does create a lot of jobs. And Belmont can be made a destination, but unfortunately the speaker [Silver] felt the only place was New York City and Aqueduct.
Board: How does a casino at Belmont happen, when the state has authorized VLTs [video lottery terminals] at Aqueduct?
Skelos: Part of the total discussions that are going to happen in the next several months as we deal with the budget is trying to get Belmont to be recognized. The people there need help, and that this is a potential huge source of income for the state.
Board: Do you know if Shinnecocks want to go to Belmont?
Skelos: I think the Shinnecocks would be happy to go there.
Board: Would there be a revenue stream for Nassau County from Belmont?
Skelos: Yes. There would be. You would need the VTL there.
Board: Nassau County has serious budget problems. Would you be in favor of the NIFA [Nassau County Interim Finance Authority] taking control if the budget is out of balance?
Skelos: I don't. Well, they have the responsibility. I don't believe they have to take over the county. I've had lunch with [County Comptroller] George Maragos, where he's indicated to me that you don't have to do it. Always, with government, certain projections are somewhat questionable, but in the end it's about executing on those projections. So I think it would not be appropriate for NIFA to take over. It can help the county work through its problems.
Board: So right now you would not favor a NIFA takeover. What about six months from now?
Skelos: I'm not deeply involved in Nassau County's finances. I have enough problems on the state level.
Board: Is there any money in the state to help Nassau County?
Board: Mangano has sought an increase in the state sales tax. Are you open to this?
Skelos: No. I think any increase in the sales tax would not be good for the county, and I believe he said yesterday he has no interest. I think I read today in the papers, that he has no interest in raising the sales tax.
Board: Is his expectation that the state will approve more red light cameras and a ticket surcharge feasible?
Skelos: Yes. That's feasible, and ticket surcharges are feasible, yes. And I've indicated that to him. I've indicated that to Steve Levy. And I think there are other areas of the state that would want to increase red light cameras.
Board: When NIFA was ready to expire a few years ago, you insisted that some remnant of it remain. Do you regret that, now that Republicans are back in control of the county?
Skelos: No. I think it was appropriate at the time. And right now it's still appropriate. They have responsibility to bond- holders to monitor that. So I think it's OK. How long was the control board in New York City? Thirty years? Something like that.
Board: Most likely the new governor will be appointing a new head of LIPA. And for the first time, under the new authority reform law, the Senate will have to confirm that appointment. What qualities and skills will you be looking for?
Skelos: Richie Kessel? No, I think what you need is really an energy expert. I think we have to bring in somebody that really knows energy and financing and all those aspects of energy.
Board: Would you consider a merger of LIPA and NYPA?
Skelos: I think that that would be a problem. Upstate is very protective of their NYPA [hydropower] energy. I think you can figure out a way to get additional energy to the Island, if we could do it in a fair way.
Board: What about ethics reform in Albany?
Skelos: I spoke to that with the governor-elect, and I indicated to him and we agreed that that has to be one of the priorities early in the session to get something done, along with the property tax cap.
Let me just say this, if a person is a crook, they're a crook. You can have a death penalty, but people are going to sometimes murder somebody. So I think you really have to look at disclosure. I was, I think, the only leader that put out his own unredacted disclosure statement. I think that's what you need, is more disclosure. But if a person is a crook, they're a crook. You can have ethics laws up to here and they're still going to be a crook.
Board: But what about behavior that might not be illegal but is a conflict of interest or just wrong? How do you deal with that kind of misbehavior? Is there need for more investigative tools in the attorney general's office or the governor's office?
Skelos: They've gone after [Pedro] Espada. The feds went after Joe Bruno. They've gone after Tony Seminerio. I mean these individuals have not escaped prosecution. In Joe Bruno's case, that's going to be thrown out eventually, because of the unconstitutionality of that statute, but people that commit these crimes eventually are going to get caught.
Board: But what about something like Troopergate? More tools were needed to get to the bottom of it.
Skelos: Well we [a Senate committee] tried to do it with Troopergate, and Eric Schneiderman indicated that we were on a fishing expedition.
Board: What did you think of the Inspector General's report on Aqueduct?
Skelos: Certainly, they came out with a scathing report of Senator [John] Sampson and all of them, and they looked at the AEG scandal. So, I think you do need a strong investigative branch, but I also think it should not be somebody that's going to be on a political witch hunt, either. And we have to maintain the balance of the separation of power between the different branches.
Board: What can be done about three men in room?
Skelos: A couple of things. Number one, I think you need to have minority leadership, if you want to call it, in the room. They have to be in the room, too. So they should be at least, the minority leaders in the Senate and the Assembly should be part of the negotiating process. That I think opens up the process more. And I've indicated on a number of occasions that the discussion should be public. You should have joint conference committee meetings, and that's what we should be doing. And the more public you have discussions, there's less of an opportunity for misdeeds to occur.
Board: What kind of relationship do you think you will have with Andrew Cuomo?
Skelos: I think we can have a very good relationship. We did the E-STOP (which tightened up laws related to sex offenders and use of social networking websites)
Legislation together when he was Attorney General and I passed the legislation. We worked together very, I think, very well on that. And we're not in competition with each other. This is for me, I want to be the majority leader for a few more years. and then I'm going to retire. Andrew Cuomo wants to be president. And so it's a different agenda.
Board: When does this honeymoon period with him end? Where might there be a fault line?
Skelos: It's probably going to occur. There are going to be bumps in the road as we negotiate a budget, there's no question that that's going to occur. But it doesn't mean you can't work through them.
Board: This could be the toughest budget ever. What is your plan to deal with the unions who will be very upset by cuts?
Skelos: How you make it more palatable is by making them be part of the negotiations, rather than just demonstrating against it. The reality is that it's going to happen. The governor has indicated no new taxes. Our conference has indicated that. The speaker has said he's not supportive of increased taxes - at least up to this point. And so, when you have that type of situation, you try to make the best of it, and you move forward. Ultimately, as policymakers we're going to make those decisions.
I said that they should be part of the budget negotiations, let's see if there's a way that can happen.
Board: What about the management of the MTA? During the campaign Cuomo said he wanted control over it.
Skelos: I think we have too many agencies. Elected officials should be responsible for the agencies. I think the governor-elect is not going to want to manage it completely, but we'll see. I have no problem with making more agencies disappear, if there's a way you can do it and make elected officials responsible for how they function.
Board: So you would support changes in the law that would give the governor direct accountability for the MTA?
Skelos: Yes, I would.
Board: A follow-up on big projects: You said East Side Access should get funding, but what about some others?
Skelos: [East Side Access] should continue forward. That's a priority. I think that's critically important for our economy here on the Island. I'm sure there's some other megaprojects - Second Avenue Subway. I don't know if that is a priority right now, based on the economic circumstances that we have. We can delay that. We saw what Governor Christie did with the tunnel. He said we just can't afford it right now. That's reality.
Board: So you would rather delay the Second Avenue subway?
Skelos: We don't have money. We just don't have money.
Board: If the courts say Jack Martins is the winner in that Senate race, you will have a one-vote majority. Holding that majority was a big problem for the Democrats in the last two years. How can you do it? Are there any upstate Dems that would caucus with you?
Skelos: There's just two of them left right now. Well, David Valesky has been there. So Tim Kennedy from Buffalo is new, and the other one is Neil Breslin from Albany County. I think on issues, I think there will be more Democrats voting with us, but we held together pretty well at 30 in the minority, when everybody thought there were going to be mass retirements and resignations and people getting jobs from the administration. It didn't happen. When we were last in the majority, at 32-30, we managed to govern. But certainly, if you have more people joining it will be better. And it's also going to be incumbent upon the governor to make sure Democrats are supportive of him.
Board: How do think the budget negotiations will be more workable?
Skelos: I do. And I think that's why it's important when you have some of the negotiations that are going on that you have the two minority leaders there. I think that can help a better package together. When we went into the minority - and I probably repeated this a few times - Patterson, Silver and Malcolm Smith said we don't need Republicans as part of the negotiations, because everything is Democrat now. That didn't work well. And they refused to convene conference committees. They refused to follow the budget reform act of 2007, which got us an on-time budget in 2008. So there are certain markers out there that I think you can get things done, if you follow the law and you make it transparent.
Leaders' meetings, it's generally called up at the request of the governor, so I would urge the governor-elect to do that.
Board: But didn't Governor Patterson have all five in the room?
Skelos: In the public room, but I was never asked to really be part of a crunchtime leader's meeting. And neither was Brian Kolb.
These meetings are called by the governor. I can't tell him who to invite but I would make that statement, and I think the governor is willing to be there about having more public meetings.
But the real public meetings that matter is once you get the parameters of where you are with the revenues and the expenses and the direction you want to go. That's when you start your conference committee meetings. And I think that has worked. I really do believe that works. We did it in 2008, got an on-time budget.
There are other conference committees that I chaired with Megan's Law where the other side got to speak, not on the actual vote, but on certain changes to it. The Pesticide Registry - I chaired that. I set up the breast cancer screening board and all of that, and nobody said it could get done. and we got it done, because it was in public. And if you do it in public, the press is there, the lobbyists are there, the public is there, the members, even if they're not on the committee, are watching on TV, or attend, you get it done. Because then, if it's done open, a member can go back to the leader when they see certain positions that are being taken, and they can say wait a minute, that seems fair to me. Why are you saying no to it? Or why aren't you telling us what's going on. And I have a lot of confidence in our conference.
We have a lot of bright individuals. You want to talk about health care, I'll put anybody up against Kemp Hannon. And that's going to be a critical area this year. Nobody knows that area better than Kemp Hannon. And I can't go through all the others, because I'm not allowed to announce committee chairs and all that until after I get elected.
Board: But we can assume Kemp Hannon is a given as chair of the Health Committee?
Skelos: Kemp Hannon is an absolute given.
Board: You mentioned lobbyists. Why are they part of the hearing process? What do you see as their role?
Skelos: If they expect something because they make a donation, then that's wrong. But they are there to represent their issues, their client. It's for us to make the decision as to whether we agree with them or not.
Board: Do they expect something in exchange for their contributions?
Skelos: They may, but that's a crime. And if you do it, it's a crime. If you do a quid-pro-quo, it's a crime.
Board: The Republicans were out in the cold for two years, and they complained bitterly about how the Democrats treated them. And the Democrats said we treated you the same way you treated us the last 40 years. What did you learn these last two years?
Skelos: I treated them absolutely fairly because it was wrong the way it was done in the past, and it started off wrong when they started with us, until that June event that occurred for five weeks [the 2009 coup]. Then everybody sort of realized that, hey, you have to start equalizing the resources, you have to treat members fairly. I'm going to continue that. And I think you're going to see a lot more Democrat bills out on the floor.
Board: Does that apply to member items?
Skelos: Absolutely. We're going to do everything more equitably than it had been done in the past. I can understand them saying that, but it was unfair the way we treated them, no question about it. And I think that has to change. But I'd also love to see Shelly Silver change it, too, in the Assembly.
Board: Speaking of lobbyists, your law firm has lobbyists. Is that a conflict?
Skelos: It's not an arm of the law firm, it's a separate entity that Jerry Kremer has. Jerry Kremer has been doing this for, since he's left the Assembly 20 years ago, whatever it was. He does not talk to me about his clients. We avoid it. That type of thing. I am of counsel to the firm. I don't share any type of profits or anything like that.
Board: As majority leader, will you allow a vote on gay marriage?
Skelos: It's something I indicated early in the year, that I would recommend to the conference that we do bring it out, but that would be a conference decision. Right now we're focused on the budget and a lot of other things. and in due course that will be discussed.
Board: But would the conference block it if the votes were there to pass it?
Skelos: I personally don't think the votes are there to pass, but that's something we'll discuss at conference.
Board: Can you tell us what factors were at play that allowed the Republican to take back control?
Skelos: On the Island with the two seats, certainly with Brian Foley, it was the payroll tax and STAR rebate. I think those were big issues. With Craig Johnson, I think he forgot a big segment of the community. He thought life was about the North Shore. He forgot that there was a southern part of the district. If you look at the Elmont community, where he would normally have won by 2,000 votes, he won by 300 votes. And the Elmont community and some of the other southern tier communities felt that he ignored them. And we very aggressively campaigned against him and if you look at many of the absentee ballots, there were people voting right down the line Democrat. Then they went over to Senator Jack Martins, then went back up to [Democrat] Pat Nicolosi who was running for the Assembly in that area.
So there was a definite message that was sent that Craig was ignoring the southern tier of that district and he made a lot of commitments to the school districts, to the libraries that never came through in terms of money and that type of thing. So I think that's where he lost. And if you look even in Great Neck, his numbers weren't that great, but the most stunning part of it was really the Elmont community, where they felt abandoned by him, not listening. The worst thing a politician can do is not listen.
Board: How can you make redistricting fair?
Skelos: If there is a way that we can fashion a nonpartisan thing and I'm going to discuss that with the speaker and the governor, I wouldn't mind doing that. Can you take politics out of it a hundred percent, I don't think that will occur. But I think there's a way you can do it better and that's what we'll look at.
Skelos: I think what you have to look at number one, Carl Paladino was not going to beat Andrew Cuomo. In retrospect, you may have been better off with Steve Levy, right? He could have won, possibly and certainly it would have been a better race.
But we did win six Congressional seats, more than any other state in the nation. We did win back the state senate. I think they picked up either nine or 10 assembly seats, so we're going to be I think at either 50 or 51 in the assembly. And go throughout the state, and look at all your major counties in the state are Republican-controlled - Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Erie County, Onondaga County, Monroe County, and probably when you go throughout many of the other smaller counties, you're going to see that they are under a Republican County Executive. And we've made tremendous inroads within the county legislatures also.
So the foundation is there for us to rebuild the party in New York State on a more global scale but the way you do it, and I want to be a part of that, is from the local level up. That's how Bill Powers did it. Bill came in, worked it from the bottom up, started winning county exec races, county legislatures and eventually we were positioned to elect a George Pataki and that's how you do it. So, was this the best year on a statewide basis? The answer is no. Could we have had better candidates? The answer is yes. But nobody was a better candidate for comptroller than Harry Wilson. Now this guy was qualified for that position. And he lost.
Board: What kind of Attorney General do you think Eric Schneiderman will be?
Skelos: I think he's going to be very consumer-oriented. I think that's where he's going to really focus.
Board: Do you have favor full disclosure of client lists by attorneys who serve in the legislature?
Skelos: I would have no problem doing that. You can't do it with certain sensitive type of cases, such as matrimonials, that type of thing.
Board: So just how will you cut spending?
Skelos: It's going to be in health care costs, you have to bring that under control and there's going to be money obviously in education. There are not going to be increases and you have to look at all the state agencies. I think Mayor Bloomberg today asked, well, directed all the state agencies to come up with another 20 percent in savings, and that's what we're going to have to do.
Board: What are the parameters that you will set about the budget talks? Will wage freezes and layoffs be part of it?
Skelos: I think the layoff agreement part ends Dec. 31st. Again, this is going to be a matter of labor understanding that you have to come to the table and work through this. It happened going back to the financial crisis in New York City, everybody came together at some point and said hey, you just can't continue like this. Bankruptcy is not going to help New York City. So, the stimulus money is gone. It made it easier not to make tough decisions two years ago in terms of money that came in for education or Medicaid, that type of thing. I don't think the stimulus money was used correctly. It should have been used to try to create jobs, as against making life easier. And now you're going to pay the price. $14 billion in new spending in two years.
Board: What are reasonable goals to be achieved in your dealings with state employees?
Skelos: There has to be a new pension tier. I think you're going to see with local governments and the state, you're going to have to pay part of your health care costs - I pay towards it. In some municipalities, you don't have to pay any of it. You're going to have to look at more contributions through, potentially, 401(k)s. It's, the way the state has been moving is just economically unsustainable, and I would prefer that unions come in and say let's work together as some of the school districts have been doing it, although teachers do have Triborough to protect them. The unions have to be told, asked do you want layoffs or do you want to freeze salaries perhaps, or figure out other ways to save the state money, but the money is just not there.
Board: Do you still support regional collective bargaining for teachers?
Skelos: We're going to tell that to the governor, see what he thinks, and absolutely. Absolutely.
Board: Should small school districts be penalized if they don't want to consolidate with other district?
Skelos: I wouldn't say that. I do think they should have financial incentives for it to happen.
Board: Does the Board of Regents have the authority to punish schools that won't consolidate?
Skelos: I don't think so.
Board: You are one of the state's top leaders. Are you troubled by the reputation of the legislature? How can you change the image of our state capital?
Skelos: I think the most important thing they can do is get a budget on time. Because it would show that you are functioning in a responsible way. I think that's the most important thing you could do. But I also believe that in government you're supposed to have rigorous debate. You're supposed to have philosophical differences. You're supposed to sometimes not get something that sounds great passed just because you or you think it sounds great. That's part of our system of government, that you don't necessarily agree on everything all the time.
That's why you have two different houses. That's why you have a governor. That's why you have the courts. So I think the dysfunction thing - have certain things been dysfunctional in Albany, the answer is yes. But I think the process, you're supposed to have vigorous debate and disagreement and then somehow come to a compromise but sometimes it's not going to happen.
The most important thing we can do right now is transparency, debate and a budget on time and I think that can be done. And I think the Governor-elect, I know he wants to do that.