Heastie talks IDC, "raise the age" and overturning NYC plastic bag fee on Slant Podcast
State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie is one of Albany's proverbial “three men in the room” – a linchpin in shaping the $152 billion state budget and the most prominent Democratic voice in the state Legislature. Heastie invited the Slant podcast to the state Capitol for the first podcast recorded inside the speaker’s office. There, he talked about the importance of the “raise the age” bill to bring the age of criminal responsibility in the state to 18.
“Personally I’m embarrassed to be the only speaker of color in the nation, and we haven’t accomplished this in New York. … This one is really personal to me, because I think there’s a lot of young people’s futures riding on myself and the Assembly’s ability to finally get this accomplished,” he said.
Heastie, who just celebrated his second anniversary as Assembly speaker, also shared how he decides what legislation to bring to the floor, why he felt comfortable pre-empting the New York City Council’s plastic bag fee and how he’s still paying off his student loans. You can subscribe to the Slant Podcast on iTunes and Stitcher (for Android), and read some of the highlights from the interview below:
C&S: You just held a press conference introducing a comprehensive criminal justice reform legislative package, including, most notably, “Raise the Age.” It’s come up in the past and this year it’s in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget. Why do you think there’s momentum to get this across the finish line this year?
CH: Well remember, the criminal justice reform package isn’t just Raise the Age. There’s other elements to it. That is, of course, chiefly important, and it’s almost painful to my heart every time it’s mentioned that New York and North Carolina are the only two states that try 16- and 17-year-olds as adults (as) I’ve said since the point that I became speaker, not just on the Raise the Age issue, just on many, many criminal justice issues that disproportionately hit communities of color. As I’m being interviewed now, we’re debating the bills out there now, running across the gamut of many criminal justice issues, but this will be the first time we’re actually taking up the Raise the Age bill.
That New York and North Carolina are the only two states that treat 16- and 17-year-olds as adults is an indictment in itself. And the goal is, if we want to consider 16- and 17-year-olds as children – which they are – or young people, then we should treat them like we treat 14- and 15-year-olds.
C&S: It’s come up in the past and hasn’t ended up in final passage. Why do you think now is the time?
CH: Personally, I’m embarrassed. To be the only the speaker of color in the nation and we haven’t accomplished this here in New York, it’s personally embarrassing to me. I’ve tried to say to my good friend (state Senate Majority Leader) John Flanagan that even deep-red states that have a Republican governor and (where) both houses of the Legislature (are) Republican, (they) have done this. So there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have this in the state of New York.
C&S: And it’s a cost issue too, no?
CH: It’s much cheaper to educate people than to incarcerate people and deal with the ramifications of people post-incarceration.
C&S: You’ve put a lot of effort into the so-called “millionaire’s tax,” proposing an extension of the existing surcharge on people making over $1 million annually.
CH: It’s an extension, plus we put in extra levels. For $5 million, $10 million and $100 million.
C&S: You’ve said that the revenue will pay for schools, health care and a variety of other priorities. The tax hike is a heavy lift – would making it a dedicated tax to go to something specific, whether schools or health care, help push it across the finish line?
CH: I mean, I don’t know. But we believe, whenever we raise taxes we want to put it towards a good cause. And for the Assembly, we’ve always put out our position where we are and you hope and negotiate for the best. If we sat here last year at this time, some people wouldn’t believe that we were able to get the ($15 an hour) minimum wage with a Republican Senate. And the best paid family leave with a Republican Senate. So we just feel like, we like to put out our positions and hope that we can hit to the heart of the people of the state of New York and they can communicate that to the legislators that this is the right thing to do.
One of the other things is, a good percentage of those millionaires don’t even reside in the state. So it’s not as though we’re hurting people. They can afford it. And the people who are leaving the state are not millionaires. It’s the middle-class people who feel it’s just too expensive to raise their families. They think places in the South and the West are much more affordable for their families to thrive. So we should be making life a little less expensive for the middle class and the working class and the working poor. When the people who can most afford it, and have really benefitted from the economy over the last few years, because the number of millionaires continues to increase in the state of New York.
C&S: When you’re discussing something like a tax hike, when it comes down to budget negotiations, is there an effort to get Majority Leader Flanagan to understand your perspective? Or you know it’s a non-starter with state Senate Republicans so you just go straight for the governor?
CH: No, you still make your point. I’ll go back to minimum wage. No one thought that we were going to be able, even though the governor joined us in support of a $15 an hour minimum wage across the state, you sit there and you continue to make the points of why it’s important and you hope that you can get enough people to at least agree with you that we could do something. Different circumstances happened as well. I think it was fortunate that it was an election year and they probably didn’t want that to be an election year issue. It wasn’t easy, but we were able to get to the finish line. So if I was ever only going to ever put forth an agenda that I think the Senate would pass, I don’t know if we’d put anything out. You’ve always got to put out where you are and where your heart is and where the conscience of the conference is, and you hope that you can get people to that position. So we’re never going to negotiate with ourselves. We’re always going to put out there what we believe is the right thing to do and go from there.
C&S: New York City passed a law adding a 5-cent fee to plastic bags, but the state Legislature blocked it, with a lot of the opposition coming from members representing New York City. Why did you make the decision to do that?
CH: Well, first of all, you do want to be respectful of local elected officials. The (New York) City Council should recognize that Assembly members represent the city of New York as well and the city is a creation of the state. And the powers of taxing people (are) really vested in the state for these very reasons. You don’t want municipalities putting all kinds of taxes on them – although this is not called a tax, it’s a fee, because the City Council is barred from passing a tax. They would’ve had to come to us. So we had a concern about it. Now, we all have a concern. There’s no bigger friend to the environment than Assembly Democrats. And the fact that we were concerned with the fee, and I’m concerned with the fee, doesn’t mean that I want to see plastic bags continue to be in the trees because you see them everywhere that you go. But we just weren’t sure that this was the right way to go. All we said was, let’s just take a pause and maybe we come back with a state solution. Maybe we come back with something that we’re willing to agree with the city to do. But people were just troubled with businesses being able to charge whatever they wanted to charge in regards to a fee. Even other municipalities – and I’m not suggesting this is the way to go – Washington, D.C., which is a place where a lot of the environmental advocates tried to use as a similar situation, even Washington, D.C., took that nickel fee and put it into an environmental fund to clean up the waterways in D.C. – and quite frankly a lot of businesses don’t even want to do the fee.
So we agree with the City Council’s goal, but we were sure that this legislation wasn’t the right way to go and we just want to take some time to figure out a better way to go.
C&S: The DREAM Act has been introduced year after year and has always failed to pass, but you seem to be optimistic. Is it a waste of time? Where’s the hope here?
CH: I guess hope springs eternal. But I do think that this will raise the consciousness of people, particular with what’s happening on the federal level, particularly people who are Democrats, of why this is the right thing to do. I’m hoping to get to the heart of the Senate and hopefully the advantage of the IDC now having three members of color over there, I hope will get the Senate to move (it) along. Because I would hope it’s important to Sen. (Marisol) Alcantara, Sen. (Jose) Peralta (and) Sen. (Jesse) Hamilton. They’ve said it, we agree. And we hope that, in their coalition arrangement with the Senate (Republicans) that they can hopefully get the Senate to think that it’s time. That these young people shouldn’t be punished because they were brought here under no act of themselves. You can’t just ignore away an issue. They want to be productive members of society. And that’s just the America that we should be.
C&S: With Trump in office, does the IDC become more relevant than before? Are you opposed to it? Should it have happened?
CH: We have a long-standing rule that – I’m the Assembly speaker, I’ve got enough politics to deal with in the functioning of the Assembly. So I kind of just leave the Senate on its own. The IDC and the Senate Republicans have this arrangement. It’s 32 elected Democrats. If one day they could figure it out, it would be fantastic.
C&S: Is there frustration as a Democrat, who has priorities that align with Democrats in the other chamber, that the IDC and Republicans are partnering?
CH: I think if I had to worry about the functioning of the Senate in addition to the Assembly, I’d have less hair than I have now. It’s my job to put forward the Assembly majority’s priorities. We have to negotiate with whoever is in the governor’s mansion or on the second floor (in the Capitol), and we have to do the same in the Senate. I just try to put out what I think is (at) the heart of (what) Democrats across the state believe, what they’d like to see, and then hope that we can move people. Because, again, if I would’ve always had a defeatist attitude because the 32 Democrats weren’t together, we would never have put forward minimum wage, paid family leave, things like that.