Niagara Gazette

Local News

April 11, 2011

Grisanti’s first 100 days have been busy

CITY OF TONAWANDA — State Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, will mark his first 100 days in office this week and his brief tenure has been an active one.

After pulling off a stunning upset of incumbent Democrat Antoine Thompson last November, Grisanti has waded into the fight to approve UB 2020 legislation, close a $10 billion state budget gap and answer to an international pop star’s shout-out.

Grisanti sat down for a one-on-one interview with the Tonawanda News prior to his Town Hall meeting with City of Tonawanda voters Thursday. Here is what he had to say:

The budget

Grisanti and his state legislator colleagues didn’t have to wait long after being sworn in to find themselves parsing a difficult and controversial issue: How to close the state’s $10 billion budget gap for fiscal year 2011.

Of the state’s spending plan, which cut $10 billion without raising taxes, he said Senate Republicans “made a bad budget better.”

He pointed to reductions in cuts to the senior health care program EPIC and funding for “need-based” school districts like Buffalo and Niagara Falls and some special education schools as evidence that lawmakers worked to get the best deal possible.

“Could it be better? Absolutely,” he said.

Addressing the position that Assembly Democrats and many liberals had advocated, that the state extend a tax applied to the wealthiest New Yorkers as a way to restore more education funding, Grisanti said the issue wasn’t politically practical. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had promised to veto any spending plan that raised taxes and said he wanted to let the so-called “millionaire’s tax” expire without an extension.

QUESTION: “Gov. Cuomo made it abundantly clear that he did not want to see the millionaire’s tax extended. The result is there will be teachers that are laid off. Is that fair? Can you look at a teacher in your district and say ‘We didn’t tax the millionaire and you’re out of a job?’”

ANSWER: “What I’ve explained to teachers, and I have teachers that I know real well, is that two years ago, there were actually two taxes that were put in. One of them was the (New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority) tax that had no expiration date (and) the millionaire’s tax. ... The Democrats actually put in an expiration date of Dec. 31, 2010 (on the millionaire’s tax). ... We talked about it at conference and decided ... our goal is not to raise taxes. I know it’s not raising a tax, it’s extending a tax, but if it happened in the Senate I don’t think it was going to get through the Assembly and if it did, Gov. Cuomo wasn’t going to go for it.

“I heard it all and I was attacked on it. ‘Mark hates kids’ — and nothing could be further than the truth. No. 1, that tax was not going to get extended because Gov. Cuomo was not going to do it. I think the basis for him not putting that tax in there is so the unions then come to the table and try to negotiate a contract that can work and go forward. If the millionaire’s tax is extended, I don’t think there’s any incentive for the unions to come to the table.”

Casino cash

Presently, the City of Niagara Falls is stuck in the middle of a dispute by the Senecas and the state over what the Indian nation says is a violation of the compact that allowed them to build three Western New York casinos.

The Senecas contend that the state, which is prohibited from opening or approving competing gaming parlors, is in violation of the compact because it has opened two video gaming parlors in Batavia and Hamburg.

The result has been that the Senecas are refusing to release the negotiated slot machine revenue to the city until the matter is resolved. Presently, City Hall is waiting on payments from both 2009 and 2010.

QUESTION: “Is the state, in your view, violating the compact?”

ANSWER: “Well, you know that’s actually a good question. To me, I think that they’re talking about no other gaming machines. Clearly what we have in Batavia and Hamburg, those are gaming machines.

I haven’t read the contract, but if the contract says ‘We’re going to do this deal and we’re going to pay a percentage back to the host cities as long as you don’t have any other gaming machines.’ Now, I think they’re taking the definition of ‘gaming machines’ very loosely. (The state) is saying we’ve had those gaming machines already. That’s true at the time they did those contracts. But when you start expanding, doing an expansion in Hamburg and doing an expansion in Batavia, that’s I think the problem they have.

I hope that they get to the table and resolve that. In 2016, this whole issue ... gets looked at again and I think there could be additional funds going back to the host cities. I don’t think it was negotiated quite that well for the host cities and how much money they get back.”

QUESTION: “Do you think the Senecas are right to be withholding this money at this point? Are these host cities being held hostage to negotiations that are beyond their control?”

ANSWER: “I think they are being held hostage. They have arbitration in place. I think the arbitrator said ‘Well, listen, you still owe this money from the past so you need to get those funds out to the communities.’

“Now the one in Salamanca, my understanding is, it actually sits on Indian land and not something bought from the city, and because that’s so, they can go ahead and release those funds. And they have. And it’s not fair that they’re releasing them to Salamanca and you’re not releasing them to Niagara Falls or the City of Buffalo.”

UB 2020

When it died last summer, University at Buffalo President John Simpson said UB 2020 would now have to be UB 2030. The higher education overhaul plan that would leave more autonomy to individual schools and not state lawmakers has been a rallying point for the bipartisan Western New York delegation.

Grisanti has played a role in advocating for the plan, which passed the state Senate 55-1 earlier this year after intense lobbying of skeptical downstate lawmakers who questioned whether allowing state schools to set their own tuition rates without legislative authorization would move the SUNY system away from its core mission of providing affordable access to a college degree for all New Yorkers.

QUESTION: “Critics of UB 2020 would say that if we allow these schools to set their own tuition rates, we jeopardize SUNY’s mission. Do you share that concern?”

ANSWER: “I do share that concern,” he said.

Grisanti explained that Assembly Democrats objected to a provision of the plan that allowed schools to increase tuition by as much a 1.5 times what is known as the “higher education index” — a figure that estimates the average cost of going to college across the country. That index had increased as much as 16 percent in a year, Grisanti said, meaning the plan as written would allowed schools to increase tuition by 24 percent that year.

He brought the concern back to UB officials who agreed to change the tuition cap formula. Students making less than $60,000 will be locked into their freshman year tuition rates and will not see that number rise. For those who don’t qualify for the locked-in rate, 20 percent of the increase will be put into a scholarship fund to help students on an as-needed basis. Also, the bill requires the SUNY Board of Trustees to approve any tuition increase, providing another check.

“We feel that there’s a protection there, to protect the students. ... The tuition now is still one of the lowest in the country. It’s still a public institution. But right now ... the last time (the state legislature) raised tuition, it was (increased) $620. They did it after students filled out TAP and FAFSA forms, so they were stuck. What happened was, the state swept $590 of it. ... The schools said ‘we may not be able to offer this class and your four-year degree just turned into four-and-a-half and we don’t have any money to do capital improvements or hire any teachers.’ It was almost like the state was using the SUNY system as a piggy bank and it wasn’t helping the students at all.”

QUESTION: “Gut feeling, yes or no, will this pass this year?”

ANSWER: “My gut feeling is it will pass this year.”

Political realities

Grisanti is walking a fine line. He is a member of the Senate Republican Conference and representing easily the most liberal district of any GOP senator. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans in the 60th district is 5-to-1.

QUESTION: “How do you find it, balancing the wishes and concerns of constituents who are certainly farther to the left than your Republican Senate colleagues?”

ANSWER: “I just try to be up front and honest in everything I do and try to get the information out there. I want constituents, too, to share with me what they would like to see done.

“In the short time I’ve been out there, 100 days, it’s just being open, honest, transparent, accessible. I don’t need to send out mailers (to say) ‘hey, look at me, this is what I’m doing’ with the pictures. I’m not like that at all. You’ll see it in the work that comes back.”

Grisanti said he has faith that voters who narrowly elected him in November will remain willing to cross party lines if he can deliver on the issues that are most important: economic development and job creation.

Gay marriage

There are any number of her fans who would love a shout-out from pop music star Lady Gaga. Grisanti got one when the “Bad Romance” singer mentioned him at her HSBC Arena concert in February and on her Twitter account — where she has more than 9 million followers.

She implored her legion of “Little Monsters” (her pet name for her fans) to e-mail and call Grisanti to lobby him to vote for gay marriage.

He got more than 600 e-mails in the subsequent 24 hours.

During his 2008 campaign (when he was a Democrat), Grisanti was opposed to gay marriage rights for New Yorkers. He says now that he supports civil unions that provide the legal rights to same-sex couples, but he would not sanction the use of the word “marriage” — which he believes should be reserved for unions between a man and a woman.

QUESTION: “Were you surprised, when you checked your e-mail the day after the concert, to see what had shown up?”

ANSWER: “I was actually getting texts from friends of mine who were at the concert. I was actually out to dinner with my wife and it was interesting. You gotta love this country. She has a powerful stage and she has a powerful following and it’s an issue that’s near and dear to her. People said I’d be upset about it. I wasn’t upset about it because that’s what makes this country so great.

“What she didn’t know is I already had an appointment set up with Marriage Equality and various other groups for the following Saturday. I met with those groups and explained to them what my position is, that I don’t want to have the 1,342 rights same-sex couples are denied, I don’t want to see them denied. I actually told them that I feel I’m not representing them fully if they have that issue and that’s what’s out there.

“What I also told them is I was brought up Catholic. I was an altar boy and I don’t have a problem with what the group wants as far as their rights. Can’t you use a different word? I don’t care if you make up a word. Can’t you use a different word other than marriage?”

He noted that of the group of 20 activists, about one-third said they don’t care about the word ‘marriage’ itself, so long as the legal relationship is the same for gay and straight couples. Others, however, argue that anything short of identical rights and terminology falls short.

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