NY1 statehouse reporter Zack Fink was on the front lines of the budget tug-of-war in the capitol this year, which lead to some uncomfortable questions – like when he asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo about his new top staffer Melissa DeRosa's perceived conflicts of interest. Luckily for us, "friend of the Slant podcast" Fink was totally comfortable fielding our questions, explaining why he thinks DeRosa's appointment is an important issue, the “anger” in Albany and the political gamesmanship of Cuomo’s “free college” plan.

C&S: You questioned Gov. Andrew Cuomo about his newly appointed secretary, Melissa DeRosa, whose father is a powerful Albany lobbyist. What did you make of his answer, suggesting the premise was sexist?

ZF: No one would suggest that Melissa didn’t earn this position, that it’s not deserved – that’s not what’s going on here. The original question that I wanted to get to the governor in that exchange was, what are you doing to assure the 19 million people in this state who already believe that there’s a bit of a revolving door between people who have money and who have access to government and those who work in government, they’re not getting an unfair advantage in getting their issues heard, as opposed to people who don’t have that kind of money? That’s the question. And the question to be answered.

The governor said the implication was that it was sexist to even ask that question if you’re not asking the same question to everybody. That’s a little bit like saying, if you get caught speeding, ‘well everyone was speeding, so it doesn’t mean that’ – you’re still speeding! It’s still a valid question in this particular case as to what you’re going to do. It’s the highest-ranking position within the administration. Secretary is a very big deal. And again, this is very much deserved. DeRosa is a real streetfighter. She’s about as good as it gets in terms of an operative. She really is. That being said, there are some potential appearances of conflicts and the question remains, what are they going to do to make sure people don’t have an uneasy feeling about that?

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C&S: The Excelsior Scholarship program, or Cuomo’s “free college plan,” is now getting some negative press. Why is that?

ZF: The Excelsior Scholarship program wound up being a bit different than what was first proposed with Bernie Sanders back in January. Free tuition is not all it’s cracked up to be when you start to really get into the details of what this is all about – for example, most students are part-time. A lot of them work. Room and board, meals, textbooks – these things all cost money. So it’s not always the tuition that’s the biggest nut to crack when you’re preparing to go to school. I think there’s no question that it’s a step in the right direction. It’s certainly hard to turn around and say this is a bad thing, or this isn’t going to help students. Of course it will! Will it help the number that had originally been promised, or people had been led to believe? It remains to be seen.

What was curious to me about all of this also was how willing the Republicans were to go along with it. It really hit their voters – I mean people whose households are making up to $125,000 a year, that’s the suburban voter. That’s the moderate Republican voter that everybody is fighting over in terms of these individual Senate races.

C&S: Is this the most acrimonious you’ve seen the state Capitol since you’ve been reporting up there?

ZF: I think this was the worst I’ve ever seen, certainly since Gov. Cuomo gained power. It’s always contentious, it always comes together and falls apart a few times before it comes back together again, but this was by far the worst. Once they blew that deadline, there was just anger. Anger from the second floor, from Cuomo’s office. Members of the Legislature were furious – they felt as though they were being gamed on a number of issues, including Raise the Age. They felt like the governor wasn’t on their side about it, they felt like Jeff Klein of the IDC wasn’t on their side about it, they felt outnumbered. And there’s some lingering trust issues between the Assembly and Cuomo over the pay raise going back to last year.

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