N.Y. Senator Michael Balboni - Chair of Homeland Security

By Ray Feliciano

Senator Balboni represents the 7th district of NY State, Nassau county, and is Committee Chairman of Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs.

Q: What can we do about the extreme polarization of the two main political parties?

“Well, here’s what I’ve done about it. I’m working with a guy named Joe Morelle, a Democrat in the Assembly. I said, ‘Ya know, we gotta cut this out. We’ve got to improve the relationships up here.’ He said, ‘You are absolutely correct.’ So, he and I got together for dinner with Paul Tokasz, the Majority Leader of the Assembly. We said, ‘How do we breach this?’ Let’s invite Republicans and Democrats, and let’s go to dinner. No agenda. Just to hang out and see what we could do.”

NY State Senator Michael Balboni (R)
While in Albany for the day, Sen. Balboni (R) met with FBA founder Ray Feliciano for this interview.
(Photo by Kimberly Feliciano

“And so we did. We’ve held two or three of those dinners, and they’ve been wildly successful. We had 25-30 people attend, all sides of the isle, Senate and Assembly. I know it’s so good because we’ve got people from the minorities of both houses saying, ‘Hey, hey, what about us?! We want to be there, too!’ The only problem is trying to fit 100 people in the room.”

“The one thing that I’ve learned in the 21 years of being in this business—as a Councilman, lobbyist, Assemblyman, Senator—is that if you really want to come to an agreement, you will come to an agreement. But, you got to have trust to be able to do that. You got to trust that the minute you finish the agreement that you get something positive, that the other side is not going to walk out and say, ‘They folded. You see, they’re ineffective! We’re the party in power because we got them to…’ Once you start having that kind of poison, which we’ve seen time and time again in the leadership conferences, you don’t have a basis for going forward. That’s what’s got to stop, and it begins with the small things, like these dinners where you can sit across from one another and develop congeniality.”

Q: How do we get elections to be a battle of issues again, as opposed to just who has the most money?

“A realistic assessment has to take into account the role of the media. The media is there to sell papers, not issues. They’re not there for the public good. They’re not! They’re there to inform, as long as the information results in the purchase of a paper. There is no such thing as an informed constituent! We have a free press, but not an effective press because it’s all about the bottom line of making money, and what’s sensational. It’s market share, just like every other business. So, it’s confrontation, divisiveness, polarization. It’s got to be unique, timely, and the more smoke and fire the better. It’s through that prism that we see government.”

“I guess it started with Newt Gingrich (Republican U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, 1995-1999) of the ‘Take no prisoners’ attitude toward politics. ‘Either you are with us or you are against us.’ It’s a take-all politics. That’s what’s been practiced now in this nation for the last 15 years. And now you have an unpopular war, which has absolutely polarized the nation, that has only exacerbated the distinction and differences, the blue and red states.”

Q: Do you believe this Red/Blue Civil War, so to speak, is a threat to the security of our country?

“It’s a fabrication. I don’t think there’s much difference between a farmer in Iowa and a Manhattan stockbroker. I really don’t. What was supposed to happen after 9/11 is that we were supposed to come together as a nation, understanding that our security was so crucial. Unfortunately, if you do that, then the party in power gets the benefit. You run around the flag and you perpetuate the current power structure. Well, the folks on the outside—it was Democrats this time, but it could have been Republicans too—sit back and say, ‘No, no, we gotta change this thing. We gotta use our God-given right as Americans to dissent.’ That’s terrific, but it’s evolved into this unique power struggle.”

Q: Because of our increased communication ability?

“I think it’s somewhat cyclical. If you talk about John Adams and his presidency—and Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison—they were at each other’s throats. Adams won the presidency by a mere couple of votes. So you had this incredible polarization back then. Does the current condition or perception hurt our national security? Absolutely! We are more interested in a sound bite and a press release than seeing that the systems we put in place actually work.”

“A great example from a business and technical side, is what’s known as the ‘safe’ legislation.” The Congress tried to enact liability protections for companies that develop technology to detect Anthrax or recover from a chemical gas attack. The difficult view is that if you are wrong, if the system you devised doesn’t work, the downstream liability is catastrophic, by definition, and threatens to bankrupt and destroy anybody who gets near that company for generations. So the businesses came and said, ‘We want to have some liability immunity so we can develop these products for the betterment of the nation, get money for it so we can do research and development, and design these systems that work—but at the same time have the ability to continue working if, God forbid, it shouldn’t work.’”

Q: Should the same liability protection apply to vaccines?

“Same to vaccines and same to politics. Now there’s so many ‘third rails’ of politics—abortion, death penalty, the war, Medicaid, Social Security. ‘You are either with us, or you’re against us,’ and touching it can be the death for politicians because it’s an all or none playing field. That is not a great way to govern.”

Q: What are the top 3 priorities we need to address to make our country safer?

“Communications—the ability of first responders to talk to one another; surge capacity in our hospitals, and coordination of emergency response mechanisms in the face of natural disasters.”

Q: How effectively can we protect the Canadian border?

“I’m very concerned about the Indian reservations. I think this a huge issue, and they’re going to be exploring it this year. They say that the Indian nations are sovereign nations, but that doesn’t mean you can’t put a border at their border. Given the Canadian persistence to grant individuals asylum without checking where they come from or who they are, I think that’s a real threat. We have to make sure that we provide our own protections. There are other technologies that you can apply to the border, but I think one of the biggest things is to make sure that you close up the loophole in the Indian reservations.”

Q: What about the concerns with cargo at our sea ports?

“There are systems already in place. There is a radiation protection system that will do the entire cargo areas. That’s been developed. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of false positives. It’s an emerging technology. We have gotten better in terms of knowing what the carriers are putting in the containers to begin with, knowing what companies are using them, when they come to ports, being able to streamline the cargos that we are very sure about versus those we have no idea about, and go in and do a high percentage—much higher than what you read in the paper—of inspections, using some of the different radiation/X-ray technologies, and also make sure you have RAD pages (radiation sensors) all over the place. It’s gotten a lot better. Is it enough? No.”

Q: Should homeland security include ensuring that our Muslim population feels included in our community?

“You need to have an outreach in the Muslim community, absolutely. There are many law-abiding Muslims who are citizens who deserve to be embraced and protected. At the same time, though, I don’t think we were treating Muslims badly before 9/11. And we got attacked anyway. This is the jihad. This is an irrational movement for world dominance of a particular fanatical perspective. We have to fight that and be very aggressive. At the same time, we can’t create more terrorists within our borders. That’s a sensitivity that needs to continually be addressed. The law enforcement officers who do investigations need to be very sensitive about that. You have to develop human assets, which means getting into the community, getting people to be sympathetic, and real good information.”

Q: Commuters seem to be prime targets for terrorists. Could telecommuting be good for homeland security?

“Yes, but the question is how are you going to change the patterns of someone else’s life? What’s great about America is that people decide what’s best for themselves and their families. We, as a government, have to facilitate those choices, but they have to make them themselves.”

Q: Is the Logan Act outdated?

“That’s a federal statute issue and it needs to be revisited in connection with the different homeland security acts that have been created. Congress moves so quickly, and the President signs so many different laws. We need to revisit a lot of laws to see how they impact existing laws.”

Q: Were your concerns about the national ID card standards proposed by the ‘Real ID Act’ addressed?

“No, not yet. This is a bit of an irony. The original statute was a part of the Intelligence Reform Act passed in Fall 2004. It set up a negotiating rule making committee, which I thought was a great idea—You work with stake holders and government to try to create regulations so as not to force down their throats the different state programs, and also to provide a funding stream. It was cut off in Spring 2005 by Congressman Sensenbrenner (R-5th WI), saying it wasn’t moving fast enough. They basically passed a law and said, ‘Alright, you will have Real ID, and it’s got to be done in three years.’ That’s a longer timetable than we originally had, but there was no negotiating rule making mechanism. So now what you have is states scrambling, and the Department of Homeland Security scrambling to come up with the regulations they were supposed to develop in negotiated rule making. It was counter effective in terms of getting people on the same page. Those are very technical issues, very important issues, and very critical issues.”

Q: What is done at the state level to protect veterans?

“Veterans rights protection is one of the most essential things you can do because we have a new generation of veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. If we’re not able to keep our promises to our aging veterans, then how are we going to convince these folks to go out and serve now? Given the fact that our entire army is a volunteer army, and so many of them come out of the National Guard, it’s really crucial to make sure benefits are maintained. We can only do so much at the state level, but we’ve been pretty effective, like the opening of a VA clinic at one of the major hospitals in Nassau county.”

Q: How do insurance companies justify premiums such as $861 per month per family?

“A lot of it goes to the basic problems of health care. There is defensive medicine as a result of lawsuits. There is an over-reliance on technology. Everybody and their mother can get a CAT scan, in their office, and can charge for it. What was initially a very good idea of managed care and patient cost management, now becomes just another layer of bureaucracy. The medical system needs to be rethought, from pharmaceuticals to hospital utilization to physician salaries and training. The insurance companies have not done their part to make the system more effective. Look at the paychecks of their CEO’s. They are doing very well. It’s time for them to give back a little.”

Q: Are you running for Attorney General in 2006?

“I am actively pursuing a nomination, and mindful that we need the balance of the state senate majority, too. I don’t want to endanger that. I believe I am a viable successor, but at the end of the day it will be a conversation between my wife and my family, and my majority leader and the state leaders themselves. The decision is pending.”

Q: What should the public be aware of regarding the various committees you belong to?

“One of my key focuses this year, regardless of what I do politically, is trying to bring back the real property tax cut for the people in the suburbs. People are dying because of real property taxes. It’s the most aggressive form of taxation. We need to see if we can do a tax cut. Mayor Bloomberg (of NYC) gave it to the residents of the city—gave back to everybody $400 and another $400. We have to do that at the state level. The economy is improving, Wall Street’s improving, our revenues are improving. This is the year to do it.”

Q: What do you most want citizens of NY to know regarding homeland security?

“They have a role to play. It can be as simple as making sure that, God forbid, in an emergency, you know how to get a hold of one another, that you have a rallying point, and that you’ve actually taken steps to make sure you can stay in your house for a couple of days. That you’ve got bottled water, a place to sleep. That is so important. I can’t stress that enough. Stay informed, and be willing to help out your neighbors. Go to www.ready.gov.”

Q: Any last statements for our readers?

“I think New York has a great future, if we choose to invest in it now. We have to rethink things. People have real pain right now across the state. We have to address things from a tax, economic, and jobs growth perspective. There’s tremendous pain upstate and in the suburbs. There’s this great economic engine in New York City, but a lot of people can’t afford to live there. It’s truly becoming a state of the mega wealthy, and we’ve got to provide some parity and some benefits for the middle class, and the lower middle class in particular. They’re really left on the wayside. That’s my focus moving forward.”