FBA Meets with Assemblyman Ron Canestrari

By Ray Feliciano

Q: As Deputy Majority Leader of the Assembly, what are your responsibilities?

“I obviously work with the Majority Leader, Paul Tokasz of Buffalo, and help oversee activities on the floor when he’s not available, and that basically includes maintaining business, order on the floor, and getting business done on a day to day basis. When he is available, I help out in the background with those activities in addition to being a sounding board for members who have a concern. We work these things out to be available to the members of the Assembly as well.”

NY Assemblyman Ron Canestrari - 4.20 K
Assemblyman Ron Canestrari (D)
- 106th District

Q: The legislative session ends in June. What takes up the remainder of the year?

“Well, I don’t know when we’re going to end session. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be the end of June, and usually go until the 4th of July. With the budget not being resolved, with the CFE court case invalidating school aid formula, and with the deadline of that decision as July 30th, I think our session will continue for some time.”

Q: Is it mostly the education budget that’s holding up the budget?

“Correct.”

Q: Is Governor Pataki suggesting certain cuts from that budget that are being opposed by most Democrats in the Assembly?

“Correct. Aid education is the big item. We believe, in light of the court decision which said that our current school aid formula is unconstitutional, that the new formula must address those districts that are ‘needy’, and redistribute money according to ‘need’. It’s our Assembly position that that should be done in the context of the state budget. The Senate’s position is, ‘Uuhh, that can be dealt with later. Let’s get the budget out of the way,’ which we totally reject. We think the court decision is quite clear that we must make a down payment on a new school aid formula to help out ‘needy’ school districts, and that we must act and make that down payment with the state budget that is currently being negotiated.”

Q: If Pataki cuts the education budget, will the burden shift to local, private property taxes?

“Well, there are two concerns. That is one concern, which is always the concern--that if we don’t increase aid education on a yearly basis, the schools desperate for funds will push that burden on the real property taxpayer. So, we have consistently raised school aid because of the need for schools. This year, with that court decision, we believe that if we do not act by July 30th, and make that down payment on school aid, then the court will appoint a ‘special master’, and that person will make decisions that we as legislators should be making. The danger there is that it’s a decision based in New York City. That special master will make a determination as to the aid for New York City, not for the entire state, and not taking into consideration all districts that are in need. We have the rural poor, we have urban poor in upstate, and our position in the Assembly is that we should address those needy districts in the context of the entire state budget.”

Q: Is Arbor Hill one of the most improved schools in the state?

“Yes. In fact, I invited Speaker Silver to the Arbor Hill school. We believe that resources, money, plus reform equals results. We’re seeing the results in Arbor Hill. There have been additional resources to the Albany school system which we have fought for, and Arbor Hill is in my district. We’re very proud of what Arbor Hill has done, what the team of superintendents has done. It’s not easy in urban schools to achieve the results they have. We believe money makes the difference, and that’s why it’s imperative that this court decision saying that needy school districts should get more, should be upheld. There are ways to determine need reduced/free lunch, also the need for second language in schools, and on the locality side there is the insufficient tax base to support the school structure. Some areas don’t have the resources in rural areas and upstate, for example.”

Q: What kind of reforms?

“Reforms in terms of reduced class size, which has been our champion in the Assembly. Universal Pre-K, which we think is incredible and equally important. We have also championed after-school programs across the state and directed money towards them. They’re not all over, as it’s a money issue, and it’s always a battle getting this done. Our position has been Universal Pre-K, reduced class size, capital funds to help improve classes and the schools themselves. Computers, pre-school and after-school programs these are the type of reforms we know lead to results.”

Q: What would be your position on government standards, No Child Left Behind, where testing is paramount?

“Testing is important, but I think the ‘No Child Left Behind’ is a joke. Of course, I have no confidence in President Bush in any arena, domestic or international. While the concept is good, there aren’t sufficient resources behind the act of ‘No Child Left Behind’. It makes matters worse because we are raising expectations that we can do more and there aren’t the funds available to support the program. So, the ‘No Child Left Behind’ act, while I think is a worthwhile venture, is shallow and meaningless unless the federal government comes up with more money to help us orchestrate it the way they need it to be.”

Q: Interns are prohibited to attend functions where there is alcohol involved. Would this inhibit their networking exposure?

“It may, but as Chair of the Intern Committee, I recommended we make some drastic changes because the misjudgment of a few people has cast a shadow on the internship program. Some of the changes are prohibiting interns from attending legislative receptions where alcohol is served. They may not get to socialize as much as they would like, but this is fundamentally an academic program. They get credit for this. We have two university professors teaching this course. They are here under our tutelage, and we don’t believe that alcohol and alcoholic receptions are necessarily part of that tutelage. There are Assembly and legislative breakfasts and lunches that interns and members can attend where alcohol is not served. They can attend those type of receptions and get an exchange of ideas with the different interest groups that appear before us, without having to go to those receptions which are sometimes fraught with problems. Caterers do not card in terms of age, and most interns are under 21. We think if something happened to the intern after having attended such a reception, that legally it’s time to call a halt to this sort of activity. Instead, redirect our interests to those activities that are academic in nature, and to those receptions that are alcohol-free.”

Q: So very few interns are over 21?

“Very few. And if they are, they still can’t go because the prohibition is still against interns because of that special status. If someone of age wants to participate in this excellent internship program, one of the things he/she must forego is alcoholic beverage at the receptions. After hours, off the premises, they can drink to their heart’s content, but not as an intern at a legislative function.”

“One of our other principle changes is banning fraternization between members of the Assembly and interns, and all staff, regardless of age. So, during the course of the four months, there can be no fraternization of an intimate type, with any of the staff or members. We have a farewell lunch here in my office for the intern. We take the intern out to dinner as a part of the farewell, as a thank you for the intern’s contribution here, with me and the entire office. That’s not the sort of intimate fraternization we’re talking about. What we are talking about is a member of the Assembly, or staff, taking the intern out to dinner alone. That sort of thing has to come to a halt. There are no exceptions. In addition, we proposed the possibility of sanctions either to the member of the Assembly, the intern, or the staff person that engages in conduct against these new rules. For the member, the Ethics Committee can impose a censure, as the ultimate penalty, and it could also be the loss of committee assignment, even the loss of committee stipend. People in leadership roles have a committee and there is a stipend attached to that chairmanship. That could be lost as well. As for the intern, he/she could be warned, and if the abuses were continual, the intern could be kicked out of the program. So, we are trying to send a signal to the colleges and universities in the state, that yes, the internship program is excellently run here, as it has been for almost 30 years, but there are changes that have been made with sanctions to ensure that the integrity of the program is kept intact.”

Q: What about the Convention Center?

“I am supportive of it, and Jack McEneny and I are pushing for it in this House, as it is our bill. Senator Neil Breslin is the chief sponsor in the Senate. We’ve arrived where both the mayor of the City of Albany (Gerald Jennings) and the Common Council, as well as the Albany County Executive (Michael Breslin) and the County Legislature, have signed off on the final bill with all the particulars, including the money involved, the $25 million, and the composition of the governing board, the convention center authority, so we’re moving very quickly on that. I expect that over the next month, before session is concluded, to pass the convention center bill in this house and in the Senate as well.”

Q: What will the bill do?

“The bill will set up the convention authority to govern the construction and operation of the center. It includes represenation from the city, county, state assembly, state senate, and the Governor. It will provide some bonding capacity for the convention center authority to borrow to actually construct the facility in the city of Albany. We do not specify a place, but we do specify guidelines in terms of the processes that must be observed for the actual location of the convention center itself.”

Q: Is construction of the clean room to be set up in Watervliet to work synergistically with Sematech?

“Yes. It is to work with Sematech at SUNY Albany, and this clean room at the Watervliet Arsenal is to provide new space for the training, on-hands education, academic education, for those people that could work in the clean room at Sematech or other places. So, it’s like a training facility, and we provided the money for a training facility at the Watervliet Arsenal for clean room type hi-tech jobs in the future.”

Q: One of your bills includes expediting foreclosure of abandoned properties in Arbor Hill. Is this part of a vast plan for the revitalization of Albany in general, a renaissance so to speak?

“Yes, in our region, certainly. The Watervliet Arsenal initiative, because of the changing status at the arsenal, with the army reducing its involvement, will provide a partnership with the private sector to start bringing in private sector jobs. That’s been working out well. We’ve already got the seed money in the Assembly. That, with other initiatives, including the convention center, and activities in Arbor Hill, will lead to a revitalized region. A lot are pro-urban agendas, that I have, and that we in the Assembly champion as well.”

Q: How fast will the growth occur and when?

“It’s never easy. We’ve got to be competitive with other states, so it’s important for us to keep our tax structure competitive. It’s important that we keep our energy costs down. These are some of the things that we have to do to attract jobs. We’ve had some successes-the hi-tech and nanotechnology initiatives at SUNY Albany have been very good. The arsenal is producing private-sector jobs as well. So, we always have more to do, but we have to keep working on it.”