June 5th, 2016

Guests: Congressman Brian Higgins and Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky

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Congressman Brian Higgins

Full interview

Higgins on whether Donald Trump being on the top of the ticket will enable the Democrats to retake the House of Representatives this year:

BH: “I don’t know. It’s a very, very good question and anybody that tells you where it’s going … we should be skeptical of because nobody saw it coming.

I think that the events for which we will remember this presidential election have not yet occurred.

Everyone is trying to handicap what [Trump’s candidacy] means relative to Democrats taking over the House. I’d like to be optimistic and believe that we can get back in the majority, but I don’t know, to be truthful, what the effect of that will be.

Certainly, at the conclusion of this election, this will be a watershed year. People, academics will study this for many, many years to come as to what’s going on. Hopefully, we can glean some important lessons relative to the work of Congress, relative to the work of the federal government because right now, Congress is not responding to the needs of working families in this nation. We’re losing. Daily, tens of thousands of people are falling out of the middle class and we have to gain that back because that’s the strength, that’s the great promise of America, a middle class that provides an opportunity for people to enter the middle class. And we have to get back to that.”

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Higgins on whether President Obama’s amicable relationship with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as opposed to his icy rapport with Trudeau’s predecessor Stephen Harper, has improved U.S./Canada relations since Trudeau took office in 2015. Also, Higgins on the expense of the wars in Iran and Afghanistan versus domestic investment.

BH: “I don’t think the benefits have fully manifested themselves from improved relations, but clearly the relationship between … the President and the Prime Minister were not good and that obviously hurt our economies, each of them.

The fact of the matter is that we sit, as you know, on an international border. Southern Ontario is a population center of 12 million people. It will continue to grow and having unfettered access to and from southern Ontario for the Western New York economy, specifically, is very, very important.

I still think we can do much, much better in terms of the relationship between the United States and Canada generally. The United States is a nation of some 300 million people. Canada is a nation of 30 million people. But they are also doing things that we, the United States, should be doing.

Now think about this. There’s going to be a new international crossing between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. And because of the failure of the United States Congress to do a robust infrastructure bill, the Canadian government is financing the entire cost of not only the bridge span, again, between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan, they’re also … going to finance the American plaza in Detroit. It just shows you that there’s a major disconnect relative to the kind of investment that we as a nation need to be making to recognize our full economic potential and that includes our cross border relations, particularly on the northern border. We don’t need to be putting up walls, we need to be removing them. …

Now just think about this for a moment. In December we did a federal highway bill, a five-year authorization of $300 billion dollars, $300 billion. It’s nothing. In fact, it’s pathetically weak for a nation of 300 million people. We have infrastructure needs that are probably $2 trillion dollars. If we did a major transportation bill we could put people back to work in construction trades, in the concrete, steel, supply materials industry and we could grow the economy to pay off the money that we issue in debt to finance these projects.

And they’ll say, ‘You know, Congressman, we have a debt problem.’

Oh really? Congress spent 87 billion dollars rebuilding the roads and bridges of—Afghanistan. Congress spent 76 billion dollars rebuilding the roads and bridges of—Iraq. We took $2 trillion dollars out of the American economy to pay for a war and basically, in the end, what we did in Iraq—and I’ve been there several times—we basically took out a bad Sunni and replaced him with a bad Shia. And the political situation, the economy has not changed in Iraq. It is as corrupt and as influenced by Iran as it ever has been. So what are we doing? We need to nation-build right here at home.”

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Higgins on how great a threat the transportation of nuclear materials through New York is to the state and what Higgins is doing to counter this danger:

BH: “[It’s a] big problem. We just successfully got an amendment put into the Department of Energy to force them to do a complete environmental impact study before this is considered.

They were using dated information that was pre 9/11. There was no technology that was established for the safe movement of liquefied nuclear materials that they want to move from Canada to North Carolina over the Peace Bridge and through Buffalo. You become very vulnerable to a potential terrorist attack or an accident that could severely contaminate the Great Lakes water supply.

It’s just very shortsighted, and it’s reckless, and it’s dangerous and we’re not going to allow the Department of Energy to get away with this. They have not been very responsive.

So we were successful in getting Congress to force them to do an EIS which I think, in the end, will kill their proposal to what it is they were proposing to do.”

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Higgins on whether the investigations into the Buffalo Billion have tarnished the project or negatively impacted its progress:

BH: “I don’t think so. I think there’s two issues. I think there is the letting of contracts that I know nothing about. I don’t care who does it I just want to get it done.

And then there’s the effect of that investment and when you consider that I grew up in the shadow of Republic Steel and Bethlehem Steel at the height of the Vietnam War. Those two steelmaking operations employed some 32,000 Western New Yorkers.

Now you see Solar City. It has now replaced Republic Steel and it will now be the largest manufacturer of solar panels in the Western Hemisphere in Buffalo, New York! You know, you really think about that it’s new jobs in clean energy technology and there’s a lot of—much like the steel industry, there’s a lot of ancillary, secondary industries that will grow up around it to support all of that.

So the Buffalo Billion helped make that possible. Now what we’ve got to do at the federal level and the local level and the state level is to make sure that that project remains viable. The state has committed some $750 million dollars, which is a huge statement of confidence and commitment to Buffalo.

We in the Unites States Congress just renewed, extended the investment tax credit for solar which is very, very important relative to … bringing that industry to a maturity so that it can survive without public subsidies. So we all have a stake in this and I just think while there is attention being focused on an aspect of the Buffalo Billion and the efforts of the governor relative to the upstate economy, there are good things also coming from that.

And I think what the governor wants—and I’ve talked with him directly about this—is what Western New York wants for itself and this is to be economically independent and self-sustaining. And it’s these kinds of public investments that will leverage private investment, which is vitally important toward the goal of a thriving economy. And Buffalo has got great momentum right now, but momentum doesn’t do you any good unless it can be sustained over a long period of time.”

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Bill Samuels asks Higgins to weigh in on the character of Louis Ciminelli, whose company LPCiminelli has reportedly been subpoenaed as part of a federal investigation into the Buffalo Billion’s contract process:

BH: “I can’t speak to the specifics of the contracts and the bidding process. Again, my objective is to have a vision and to do as much as I can to make that vision real. And the letting of contracts, the awarding of contracts is just something that I do not, nor do I want to, be involved with.

Louis Ciminelli is a good person. He is a second generation. Ciminelli Construction, started by his father Frank—he may be a third, but I think it is second generation—has worked on a lot of very successful projects. Louis was also the chairman of the Power Authority under Governor George Pataki. And during that period we challenged the Power Authority during re-licensing and received that $279 million dollar settlement. So all of my dealings with him have been very constructive and positive about the Western New York community.”

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Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, Now a Senior Fellow at Demos

Full interview

Brodsky on why the fears of a New York State Constitutional Convention becoming a “runaway convention” are overblown:

RB: “This is a voter governed process. They have three bites at the apple. Do you call a convention? That’s an election. Who are the delegates? That’s an election. Do you like the product? That’s an election. Elections are the best way to sort out really serious public policy issues and I’m satisfied that the checks and balances are good enough to make a runaway convention highly unlikely.”

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Brodsky on why he believes that elected officials should be allowed to serve as delegates to the Constitutional Convention and alternatives to constitutionally barring them from doing so:

RB: “I do not share the view that there is a class of New Yorkers who are disqualified from running.

There are ways to rationalize this. For example, the Legislature does have the power by statute to limit the number of offices a person can hold at one time. The Legislature could pass a law saying you can be a member of the Legislature or you can be a member of the convention, you just can’t be both.

So there are ways to rationalize this, but the notion that the Legislature is the problem I’ve never been particularly sympathetic to. Some legislators are the problem. Some legislators are the solution. And if voters pick a person to represent them at a convention, that needs to be respected.

There are other issues that can be done. For example, there is a sense that some of the Senate districts are not fairly drawn and that there are better ways of electing delegates than the vote-for-three model that currently exists. Right now, if a delegate selection election were held, you would walk into your voting booth and there would be a list of two, twenty, thirty, forty names. You would vote for three of them and the top three vote getters would go.

There is a theory that if you change that, which you could do by law, so that there is a list of forty candidates but every voter gets one vote and the top three vote getters go … that you have a much more representative body at the convention. I think that’s true.”

Link to audio

Brodsky on why he thinks that some of the proposed ethics reform legislation would not be effective in cleaning up Albany and the reforms that he thinks would actually work:

RB: “As we saw in the Skelos case, Dean Skelos did not put any money in his own pocket. The money was sent to a family member. … There’s no way to legislate against that and the laws that are being proposed don’t even try.

So the call for legislative reform is, I think, best looked at in terms of what would really work and I think there are two things that could be done that so far haven’t been done that are really worth looking at. One is doing something about budget money pots that are largely a secret, parsed out by the governor and the legislative leaders. I think there is a real problem there and I think it can be and should be addressed by law.

Second is the LLC loophole, which is a source of real conflict and influence peddling cash that can and should be dealt with by law. But the notion that we need this sweeping set of reforms doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Let’s focus on what works. Let’s reject what doesn’t work and let’s not look at new laws as the best way to deal with this. Look, anybody who is still engaged in shady activity after three years of what we’ve seen from the U.S. Attorney and others is mentally ill and is not going to be affected by sweeping new laws.”

Morgan Pehme: “Do you include that 8 billion dollars in business subsidies as part of that slush fund?”

RB: “Well, no, unfortunately. That’s a second slush fund and that’s a subject that needs a much greater looking at. Those largely come through state authorities and are monies that the executive branch has almost complete control over. And it’s done in secret and you get things like the Buffalo Billion, which may or may not have good particular projects in it, but it’s done in secrecy without checks and balances. And in a democracy, what saves us are checks and balances.”

Link to audio (Part 1)

Link to audio (Part 2)

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