October 10, 2004

Seward Town Hall in Dryden

New York State Senator James Seward held a Town Hall meeting in the Dryden Village Hall on Thursday night, addressing an audience of about twenty people, taking public questions, and then having private sessions afterward. (I've tried to be as complete as possible, making this a really long discussion, so I've highlighted a word or phrase in each paragraph if you want to browse rapidly.)

State Senator Jim Seward describes his district
State Senator Jim Seward describes the shape of his district.

Seward began by describing the shape of his district and how far he has to drive to meet people, an odd reminder of how severely the state has gerrymandered legislative districts. After the introduction, Seward turned his attention to recent legislative affairs, starting by saying that "any discussion of the '04 session has got to start and really end with the budget."

Seward noted that the budget didn't pass until August 11th, pointing out that a July 30th deadline set by the courts to resolve the Campaign for Fiscal Equity's lawsuit regarding school funding hasn't helped. While the CFE suit was focused on funding (or the lack thereof) for New York City schools, Seward felt that the issues it addressed should apply more broadly to "high-need low-wealth areas," including upstate. Seward would prefer to see the legislature in control of these issues than the 3-person panel appointed by the courts.

While Seward had few kind words to say about the budget (and said nothing about the fact that the Senate hasn't yet met to consider overriding Pataki's budget vetoes, continuing uncertainty), he was enthusiastic about the budget reforms currently being pushed through as a constitutional amendment. The legislature has passed it once, will (presumably) pass it again after the next election, and put it on the November 2005 ballot for voters to approve. The state will then have an independent budget office, start its budget process earlier, and have a fiscal year that starts May 1st, after the critical April 15th tax deadline, with a contingency budget in the wings. School aid will also be figured every two years rather than every year.

Seward gave an overview of the state's $101.3 billion budget, describing it as "pro-education," adding $750 million to school aid and giving districts a minimum of a 1.75% increase in operating aid. It also preserved the STAR program for property tax reduction, restored $200 million to the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP), and included capital aid for SUNY and CUNY colleges, including TC3's proposed expansion. While Governor Pataki vetoed the TC3 money, Seward said the legislature was "currently in discussions with the governor to take care of some of these worthy projects."

He brought up general concerns with the rate of increase in property taxes, saying that while New York's state tax level isn't unusual among states, adding local taxes, especially property taxes, makes it a high-tax state. He cited the need for Medicaid reform in particular, discussing a Senate Task Force that had proposed 41 changes but had only been able to enact a few. The state is starting to pick up the cost of Family Health Plus, saving Tompkins County $90,000 this year, and $720,000 next year. Seward also discussed issues in the state pension system, which has faced rising premiums as the stock market declined, and the prospects for other reforms Seward would like to see, including changes to the Wickes law mandating multiple contractors on government projects and liability reform. Seward would like to see an outright ban on unfunded mandates from the state.

Seward discussed some other financial issues, including the Empire Zone program, which they extended despite growing concerns of abuse and Assembly hearings on the matter. He noted that the legislature had added the CHIPS highway program back into the budget, sending $35 million to counties around the state, as well as funding for public health, nursing homes, and hospitals, with a doubling of the tax credit on insurance premiums for long-term care insurance. (Long-term care insurance helps reduce later Medicaid costs to the state.)

Seward also brought up the growing issue of reform in New York State government, saying he was pleased to be a member of the Senate Majority Task Force on Government Reform, "looking at opening the legislative process, look at all aspects of state government, address the issues of capital gridlock." He has previously supported measures for more citizen initiatives and referenda, as well as public disclosure of all legislative spending every six months.

Among the possible reforms Seward mentioned were the ending of voting without the member being present in the chamber, allowing half a committee to request public hearings without the approval of the committee chairman, more direct pathways for bills to go from committees to the floor. Seward also suggested "an idea just off the top of my head" for conference committees to proceed without the leadership having to create them.

After his presentation, Seward took questions from the audience. The first question, from Laura (whose last name I didn't get) was about the ever-growing cost of healthcare, noting that she was charged $23 for a plastic kidney-shaped basin for vomit during a hospital stay. Seward, who is the chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Insurance, said he would look into it. He's more focused on insurance, but also interested in the underlying costs.

I asked the next question:

"I'm happy to hear that you're a member of the Senate Task Force on Reform, but my understanding is that every Republican Senate member is a member of that task force... so why should we take this as anything more than cynical election-year talk?"

Seward said he "didn't consider it such", while acknowledging that every senator was on the task force and pointing to Senate Majority Leader Bruno's press release. Seward continued that "sometimes the sun, the moon, and stars, you see them lining up so that something happens, and I see them lining up on this," promising a report by the end of the year - "the word has reached the capital loud and clear." The only especially promising thing he said (from my perspective) was that "we don't want to come back next year and say nothing's been done." We'll see, next year.

The next questioner, Karen Fuller, had tough questions for Seward about mental health. First she asked about the governor's vetoing $7.7 million for mental health from the state budget, and the prospect for overrides. Senator Seward replied that while they're taking a "non-confrontational approach" with the governor, he felt that mental health was a growing concern:

"When it comes to the mental health funding in particular... we've gone through a cycle of de-institutionalization, having people out in the community rather than institutionalized. My concern there is that people get released out into the community into what is sometimes what I call a "phantom" local system of... mental health services. Often there are huge waiting lists... In any event, if you just want to talk about the dollars and cents of it, it's much cheaper to have people in the community than maintained in an institution, and I think it's better for them as well, in most cases, with some exceptions obviously. I think we've got to beef up that local community-based system so we can take these people safely in the community."

Fuller also asked a question more particular to the insurance committee he chairs, and the watering down of Timothy's Law, which seeks to establish parity between physical and mental health insurance, by adding requirements that parity only apply in cases of a biological cause for the mental health issue, and not for cases where abuse or other social problems caused them. Fuller personalized the issue dramatically, reading from a homework assignment her daughter had written about her own problems and her own regular encounters with an insurance system - the state employees' system at that - which only seems to pay for short-term "stabilizing," not for the time needed to address issues longer-term.

Karen Fuller reads her daughter's writing to Senator Seward
Karen Fuller reads her daughter's writing to Senator Seward.

While encouraging Fuller to talk directly with his office and saying "I appreciate your testimony," Seward didn't answer the question of parity directly, instead citing a "balancing act" and the Senate's concern that parity would cause an increase in insurance premiums, "so great that people drop out of the insurance systems... we don't want to aggravate the uninsured problem."

Martha Ferger of Dryden asked whether it would be possible to tax soft drinks with a sin tax like those applied to alcohol and tobacco, as they seem to have real health risks and could be a good source of revenue. Seward said it was an interesting idea, an emerging issue.

Harry Dillo of Caroline (I don't think I got his name right) asked the Senator about the possibility of eliminating property taxes on houses as a source of school revenue, saying that "government is becoming the enemy of homeowners." Seward noted that the STAR program currently shifts $3 billion from property taxes to the state, but that half the $30 billion spent on education statewide comes from property taxes. While he'd like to change it, he thinks it won't happen overnight, though he sees "property tax as issue number one." The income tax rate would have to "go up so high" to fix the problem that it will take time.

Martha Ferger asked Senator Seward about his vote against raising the state minimum wage, which Seward said he'd rather see done nationally to avoid the state being disadvantaged. Ferger pointed out that most of these jobs are service jobs, and "no one will go to McDonalds' in Pennsylvania."

Seward replied that:

"My concern is - and this is what I'm hearing from employers - if we have the minimum wage too high here in New York... frankly, my fear is that there will be fewer employment opportunities, particularly for unskilled young people that they're going to get priced right out the market.

"Someone once told me that 'you don't set the minimum wage as a legislator' - he said Wal-Mart sets the minimum wage because whatever Wal-Mart or any other large employer may be paying, other employers have to match that, in order to attract anyone at all."

Seward also questioned the existence of minimum-wage jobs in Tompkins County, but audience members brought up examples.

County Legislator George Totman expressed similar fears, saying that:

"I'm against changing the minimum wage because I think it will hurt a lot of the young people and a lot of the older people. The reason I say that is my youngest son used to be manager of four McDonalds' stores, and I walked in there one day and saw a little old lady who used to work for me, cleaning tables and things like that, and she wasn't there really for the money. It was for something to do.

I've seen a lot of people, older people, at McDonalds, greeting people things like that - and if they change that minimum wage thing, those people will not have a job. The people we're trying to protect, we're going to misuse them by changing the minimum wage. If they were, like this lady back here says, they only get $5.15 an hour, she says she only worked there six months because she wanted to get something better, she can do that. But for a starter, for young kids, if they don't want to go to work for $5.15 an hour, they can take someplace else. But I don't think we should abuse our young and old people - the middle class people can find other jobs - but the young people and the old people need a job. Some people - it isn't always for money, but for something to do."

While admitting that "I'm surprised that you can get someone to come in the door for $5.15," Seward said he expected they "would quickly move up. The market, I would assume, would dictate that. Obviously, in this day and age, no one can pay rent, a mortgage, food, and raise a family on minimum wage." He said this was an issue they'd continue to consider.

Afterward, Seward met with people from the audience individually.

Posted by simon at October 10, 2004 12:14 PM in
Note on photos