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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 21, 2010

John McEneny

By Zach Simeone

ALBANY COUNTY — John McEneny, a Democratic New York State Assemblyman since 1993, believes the devil is in the details. Although he supports tax control and consolidation, he isn’t for simple one-size-fits-all, sound-bite solutions. He says the state-aid formula to schools is political and should be changed and he cautions against turning the University at Albany into a “high-class trade school.”

He is opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds.

McEneny, 67, sits at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee as he explains that, while he supports a tax cap in theory, he does not like the idea of committing to one.

“I won’t sign a pledge, simply because I need to get beyond the sound bite,” McEneny explained. “For example, if a bill comes up for a 2-percent tax cap, and there’s two school districts, and one district hasn’t raised taxes in three or four years, and the other’s raised them without exception, well, maybe it’s time for one to have a 3-percent raise, and the other should have zero. The devil’s in the details, and there are always unintended and unforeseen consequences.”

McEneny does not think that income tax is the problem.

“If I have one person come up to me in a year and say, ‘My income taxes are too high,’ that’s an unusual year,” he said. “But I’ve had as many as 125 phone calls in a week over school tax. The issue at the door-to-door is the Albany public school tax.”

One reason that Albany is an expensive place to live, McEneny went on, is the way charter schools are run.

“I don’t hear much out of my opposition about the charter schools, even though we saved two to three million dollars at the last minute when New Covenant finally closed,” McEneny said. “I don’t object to charter schools; I object to charter-school saturation, and I object to a lack of accountability. Nobody knows who’s on the board; nobody knows when they meet; nobody votes on their budget; and yet, they’re public schools.”

McEneny supports consolidation of government services as a means of cutting costs.

“Everyone likes their local schools and police force, but does that mean nine administrations for police forces in Albany County? Because that’s what we have now,” said McEneny. Giving examples of efficiency, he went on, “I remember substitute teaching back in the ’60s, and one guy called up for each school district to see if you were available that morning. My daughter’s got a system of robo-calls that goes out to the world, and the first one to respond is a sub.”

McEneny also explained why he voted against the consolidation of government bill, even though he supports consolidation.

“Do I go for dissolving villages? No, I don’t, and that’s what that bill called for,” he said. “I don’t think that the 34,000 in Guilderland should decide if Altamont should be dissolved; I think people in Altamont should decide. I thought the bill was gutless, and it didn’t attack our most expensive areas, which are defense and education, fire being defense, and public schools being education. We don’t mention them; we treat them like sacred cows.”

Of taxes, he concluded, “Not all taxes kill jobs; some create jobs, because they go into infrastructure.”

McEneny also thinks that New York has much to offer in terms of jobs, and points to the growing technological facilities nearby.

“Look at what you’re seeing with the Watervliet Arsenal; high-tech, using a government facility and taxpayer funds in a public-private partnership,” said McEneny. “We’ve been investing wisely, and all you need to do is ride over to Fuller Road and see what that means for Albany; these are good paying jobs, they’re going to be here for at least a generation, and I think that’s one way New York is actually competitive. In Buffalo, it’s biotech; here, it’s nanotech. And there are other centers across the state of public-private partnership, tied in with public universities.”

He also points to the Industry-University Task Force, which connects students at a particular university with the industry they wish to enter, in an example of that industry near the school.

With regard to the distribution of federal funding, McEneny thinks the state-aid formula is a purely political process, and favors the Title 1 formula.

“I like Title 1 money going where it’s needed, and it’s not based upon geography; it’s based upon the need of the child,” he said. “I think the state aid formula is not respected by anyone…The joke was, it’s a 54-step formula, and only two people understood it, but one of them died, and they can’t find the other one.”

The state-aid formula, he went on, must be changed.

“There should be a rationale as to why a city gets a certain amount of money and the other doesn’t,” McEneny said. “I think the public should know right away, and it should be based on definition of need, including unemployment numbers, aging infrastructure. How old are your schools? All of this should be spelled out.”

He went on to comment on the projected decreases in federal aid, and how that aid will be absorbed at the state, county, and town levels.

“My personal bias is, I think we’ve been subsidizing the Sunbelt like they’re still rural and underdeveloped, and those federal subsidies have allowed them to candidly under-serve their own people,” McEneny said. “I also have a problem with the Business Council. They come out with a chart that says we’re the second highest taxed state in the nation. For a few years, South Carolina sounded like a good tax haven — they charge 5 percent on bread and milk. That’s one way we can get folks to pay their fair share,” he joked.

McEneny is also concerned with the recent cuts in the state university system.

“The idea of eliminating French, for example, at the University at Albany, is a real lowbrow approach, which, if it occurs, is not going to attract the best students,” he said. “I think the reputation of the university is, it’s a comprehensive reputation, and the best scholars want a full-blown liberal education that’s comprehensive. Turning the place into a high-class trade school is not the way to go.”

McEneny also referenced the Public Higher Education Empowerment and Innovation Act, proposed earlier this year by Governor David Paterson.

“The assembly is being beat up for not backing the so-called SUNY Empowerment bill, which is a major issue,” he explained. “The senate voted for it. It would give SUNY campuses greater independence in managing their resources. And we have certain demands we want to make on that bill, which would not eliminate a legislature’s fiduciary responsibility.”

Again switching topics, McEneny went on to say that he opposes the death penalty, as it is a moral issue, not a legal one.

“I think if you have unlimited faith in police and politicians who become judges, then maybe you like it, but I think human nature has too many variables to give them that life-and-death judgment,” he said.

McEneny thought back to the legislative conference in 2004 after the Court of Appeals decision.

“We went around the table in the conference room,” said McEneny, “and someone said, ‘Wait a minute; you mean, if we don’t fix this, then there’s no death penalty in New York State?’ The speaker said, ‘That’s right. That’s what it means.’ So they said, ‘Why would we ever fix it?’”

McEneny went on to address the Tea Party’s campaign literature, which points out that McEneny collects a pension on top of his salary.

“This is standard in the private sector,” he said. “This is OK for GE, for IBM, for Martin Marietta, and other companies, that when people hit retirement age, they take their pension. They withdraw from the system, which by the way saves the taxpayers about $10,000, that I’m not in the pension system anymore...Then, they realize that they could use the person, and they hire them back. How do they hire them back? They call them consultants.”

He also made reference to a study on the state’s retirement system by the Pew Center on the States. “The Pew study says that the New York State Retirement System is the healthiest public retirement system in the United States of America,” said McEneny. “They can handle the pension that was paid into it from me since 1965.”

Of Busch’s campaign ads that reference his pension, he said, “It would be nice if she said, ‘…after 42 years of public service.’ It would be nice to throw that one in, too. They’re obsessed with it.”

McEneny further addressed the Tea Party’s charge against high taxes.

“The Paladino and Tea Party approach is to say that New York State is totally dysfunctional, totally broke, and the worst of the worst, ignoring the fact that the traditionally low-tax, low-government-services states — Arizona, Florida, Nevada — are in worse shape than New York,” said McEneny. “So, according to the people who have this one-issue agenda of low government and low taxes, those states should be ahead of us; they aren’t. This is a national issue.”

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