Stec talks budget, hiking permits in Senate run
State Senate candidate Dan Stec says the state Legislature will need to make some difficult budget decisions in the coming year, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he has a list of what he would like to cut and what he would like to save if elected.
He is also skeptical about the efficiency of hiking permits, and though he is supportive of increasing state Department of Environmental Conservation staffing, he is not sure if this is the year to do it.
Stec, a current Republican assemblyman from Queensbury, is running to replace retiring state Sen. Betty Little’s 45th District seat against Clinton County treasurer Kimberly Davis, a Democrat from Plattsburgh. The Enterprise interviewed him Tuesday. A similar interview with Davis was documented in a story published last Thursday.
Cuts and saves
Stec said the coronavirus increased New York’s $6 billion budget gap to $14 billion.
“We can’t continue to say ‘yes’ to every spending idea that comes around,” Stec said. “Those days are over. … We have to start making some serious decisions.”
Stec focused on reducing waste and fraud, like Davis did. She declined to say what she would cut or save, and she backed a proposed tax of millionaires and billionaires. Stec, however, named things he would and wouldn’t be willing to cut.
On his cut list are $100 million for public campaign finance, $100 million in benefits checks allegedly being sent to deceased people and $400 million in tax credits for companies making movies in New York.
Stec said he would not cut infrastructure or child health care. Education is also off the table for him, except for $27 million he said is spent annually on tuition assistance for children of undocumented immigrants.
In April, when the two chambers of the state Legislature passed the 2020-21 budget, they also gave Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his state Division of Budget sweeping powers over a “rolling state budget,” with the ability to make cuts during the budget year due to the deficit.
Stec voted against those budget provisions.
“The Legislature giving that kind of added authority to an executive is always concerning,” Stec said.
He said he supported granting the governor executive powers to make other emergency changes in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it “was the right thing to do at the time.” But for the past six months or so Stec has called for these emergency powers to be rescinded. Davis holds the same position.
“The urgent nature of the emergency is behind us,” Stec said.
Stec said one spending area that Democrats have been too generous with is Medicaid.
“We spend more than Texas and Florida combined on Medicaid, and both of those states have more people than we do,” Stec said.
He said there is an estimated $5 billion in Medicaid fraud, waste and abuse by individuals and providers a year.
“Every dollar that is being siphoned out … is a dollar that is not going to someone that needs it,” he said.
Stec said he is not a fan of the New York Health Act, a proposed single-payer health insurance bill — neither is Davis — but he is also not happy with the state’s current situation, either.
He said the current health care system creates a “negative reinforcement circle.” People who can afford to pay into Medicare are leaving because of high taxes and at the same time the state is attracting people who need these cheaper benefits.
He also disapproved of the state providing the same health care benefits to undocumented immigrants as documented citizens.
“That sound noble, but guess what? It’s also very expensive,” Stec said.
DEC and High Peaks
Stec said he is one of three 46ers in the Assembly. He finished hiking the High Peaks in 2011. That year there were 346 new finishers. That number has risen to record amounts every year, he said.
“If you invite more people to Sunday dinner, you have to buy more groceries,” he said.
Stec, whose father was a forest ranger, said he had been pushing for the state to hire more rangers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that sort of addition is harder to pitch now.
“Is that where the spending priority needs to be right now?” Stec asked.
Regarding the possibility of the state introducing parking or use permits for hiking in the High Peaks, Stec said it’s is “not off the table forever” in his mind, but that there are several steps the state should take before implementing a permit system. In that he agrees with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos rather than environmental advocacy groups. Stec also said he worried the money generated from permits would not be used on trails and that it would cost more than it bring in. He referred to hiking permits as “another tax” the state would be adding.
He said he reguarly talks with DEC staff and environmental groups, and recently had dinner with Senate Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Island.
Stec responded to Davis saying she was “dissappointed” with his “nay” votes on police reform bills prohibiting officers from racial profiling and requiring that they report weapon discharges to their superiors.
Stec said people should look past the names of bills.
He said the racial profiling bill would require officers to collect the names, addresses and ethnic backgrounds of everyone involved in routine and investigatory activities, which he said would create hours of extra paperwork.
Asked if he has heard about cases of racial profiling detailed by Black people living in his district, Stec said he hasn’t.
“In my eight years in the Assembly, I can’t recall anyone ever reaching out to my office to share an experience like that,” Stec said.
He opposed the weapon discharge bill because he said it would extend to off-duty officers shooting personal guns at targets on their own property.
However, the text of a bill that passed the Assembly, Senate and was signed into law by the governor this summer, which Stec voted against, only requires officers to report weapon discharges “under circumstances wherein a person could be struck by a bullet” or when shooting “in the direction of a person.”
Stec said this is partly duplication of existing legislation and partly an expansion meant to “harass police officers.”
He said he would like to see everyone agree that the police have difficult and necessary job, and that they do it well.
He said there are more checks and balances for police officers than other professions, but, like any profession, he said there are “bad apples” who slip through the cracks.
He said when these bad apples are discovered, there are more check and balance laws ensuring that they face the consequences.
Stec said in his eight years in the Assembly he has built knowledge of and relationships with the groups, people and legislation involved in expanding broadband internet service. He said these will be useful if he is elected to the Senate.
He, like Davis, opposes a tax on running fiber optic cable along state highways. He said he is a co-sponsor on an Assembly bill to eliminate that tax.
While Davis said she wanted to “hold telecommunications companies feet to the fire,” Stec said he preferred the “carrot” approach as opposed to the “stick” approach.
Stec said he believes the minimum wage is a “starter wage” and has voted against minimum wage increases.
“The minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage,” Stec said. “Has it kept up with the times? I think that is something that needs to be done nationally.”
He said New York raising the minimum wage more than surrounding states is “tinkering with the free market” and disincentivizes businesses from staying in the state.
Stec said he believes there should also be training wages for younger people, who would earn less because they are less experienced. He said minimum wage increases without these training wages hurt young people the most because businesses are less likely to hire them.
Stec said to help people earn a living wage, the state should invest more in BOCES and vocational training through community college.
Asked if he has ever changed his mind on an issue, Stec immediately knew of one: medical marijuana.
“I used to say, ‘If somebody said that I would vote to legalize medical marijuana, I would have said that you were high,'” Stec joked.
Stec described himself as a right-of-center, conservative Republican and said he voted against medical marijuana for years because he believed it would be easily abused.
But over the years he spoke with enough people who talked about the relief from seizures, glaucoma and cancers marijuana provided, and his view began to shift.
He is not in support of legalizing recreational pot, however.
Stec said he would like to sit on the Environmental Conservation, Local Government, and Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs committees. He is currently the ranking Republican on the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee.
Kimberly Davis and Dan Stec will debate at Mountain Lake PBS Wednesday, Oct. 21, and the debate will be aired Friday, Oct. 23.