Jewish Assemblyman Steck discusses legislative concerns

Published Thursday, August 14, 2014
by By PHIL STECK’S ASSEMBLY STAFF

 While campaigning door-to-door during his 2012 election cycle, one thing amazed Steck. “There are some neighborhoods in Niskayuna where it seemed like every other house has a mezuzah so that was kind of surprising to me. They have a wonderful Jewish Community Center in Niskayuna as well.” Steck made his comments on The Jewish View, with cohosts Rabbi Nachman Simon of the Chabad House of Delmar and Marc Gronich, publisher/editor of JBizTechValley.com.

Steck, 54, says there are several reasons he was drawn to joining a Reform congregation.

 “Jewish families that come from Eastern Europe as mine did tend to have a variety of different opinions to the solutions to the various problems faced by Jewry in eastern Europe,” said Steck. “At the time, my family, my maternal grandfather came from Warsaw, Poland and my maternal grandmother from Bucharest, Romania and my father’s parents came from Proskurov, which is near Kiev and for whatever reason they’re families that gravitated towards that approach. There are other relations of ours who are Orthodox. My parents weren’t particularly religious so when I decided to join a synagogue I felt most comfortable with the Reform. My wife, Patricia, is not Jewish.”

Steck’s parents are retired Albany Academy Athletic Director Ernest Steck and the late Hackett Middle School teacher Roselyn Steck. He is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard, class of 1981 and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, class of 1984 where he was a member of the Law Review and Penn’s National Moot.

Steck, one of the four freshmen Democrats, was not appointed by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as chairman of an Assembly committee. Freshmen members don’t get that honor with an added stipend. There are too many members more senior, and the seniority system rules among the Democrats in the state Assembly. He is, however, on several powerful committees, which most freshmen members don’t get the chance to be a part of. Steck is a member of the health committee, insurance committee, judiciary committee, transportation committee, and children and families committee.

Health Insurance Concerns

Two of the committees, health and insurance, combine to address important issues during budget negotiations.

“There are lots of problems in the system,” according to Steck. “The high cost of going to medical school deters people from going into primary care. Under the Affordable Care Act, because New York already provides a lot of what the Affordable Care Act is making mandatory, we are going to see an increase in the revenue we get from the federal government, which will be helpful to our budgetary situation.”

But Steck says the rampant corruption in the Medicaid system makes it impossible for the state to provide a cost-effective health program for the poor. Administrative costs in New York are double the national average, upwards of 40% in New York State.

 “I’m a New Deal Democrat. I believe in government. I believe government needs to take the lead in many areas. I believe in government-sponsored health insurance, however, we don’t want to do it in a way that is wasteful and doesn’t get to the point.”

It turns out that Steck, who served in the Albany County Legislature for three four-year terms, had a better and lower cost health care plan with the county than he has now with the state.

 “Albany County is a self-insurer for health insurance” Steck notes. “I paid $2,000 for health insurance for a self-insured plan in Albany County. I go to the state and I pay double because it is not a self-insured plan, which I don’t understand since there are way more state workers than there are county workers. Self-insurance works best the more people you bring into the system. Health care lobbyists don’t give to legislators who support single-payer health insurance like myself.”

Critical Of Tax-Free Zones

Steck is also critical of Governor Cuomo’s proposal for START-UP NY, which would provide tax-free zones affiliated with colleges and universities that will encourage businesses to locate in those places.

 “The problem is that also deprives us of a lot of revenue that we need and it is extremely unfair to the businesses that may be already innovating and competing and won’t have the benefits of those tax breaks,” Steck laments. “START-UP NY is a program that is really brought on by desperation and not thought out. We all want to see upstate New York move forward and the point being is we don’t have the revenue to do economic development projects. So what can we do, we can give tax breaks.”

Steck notes this program will only be successful until a better offer comes along.

“The other states can do the same thing. So, a business can come here for awhile, they’ll do their thing, and then some state will make a similar offer. The record of these things is poor. The Pataki Administration had their Empire Zones and that was remarkably unsuccessful. I think the way to attract businesses to New York is to build the best possible infrastructure for business of any state in the nation and that will attract people.” But that involves raising revenue and spending money, Steck added.

Fighting Corruption, Local Goals

The rampant corruption weaving its way through the legislature during the past 40 years with 45 bad apples giving the Legislature a tarnished name, has Steck calling for a full time Legislature. Steck admits this would not eliminate corruption. Lawmakers receive $79,500 a year plus legislative stipends for committee chairpersons and leadership posts as well as lodging and per diem pay for lawmakers when the legislature is not in session.

“We have too much work to do, the legislation is too rushed, we spend three months of our six month session on the budget and then there’s not a lot of time to do the other things we do,” Steck said. “I believe in a full-time Legislature and that would reduce the corruption in the state Legislature.”

Steck says while Speaker Silver, 70, has not had a flawless 20 years at the helm of the Assembly, he still supports him as the leader of the lower house. “The speaker has been outstanding. He’s the best listener I’ve ever dealt with in government. You can talk to him about your district, and you will get something for your district but not everything you want. He doesn’t take a position without the conference giving him advice. He’s very good at that.”

Steck also touts a measure he has winding its way through the legislative committees, increasing by one percent the income tax for wage earners bringing home from $500,000 to $2 million from 6.85% to 7.85%.

“For Upstate New Yorkers, where people have low income and pay high property taxes, the income tax is much better because they don’t have to pay as much because their incomes aren’t as high compared to the property tax which everyone is kind of socked with equally in order to support education,” Steck argues. “We need to reform the tax structure. We need a commitment from government to fund infrastructure projects. We’re not going to do that if we’re decreasing income taxes.”

This could be Steck’s long-term goal during his legislative tenure.

Steck has also been advocating for local projects such as an overhaul of Exit-4 of the Northway. The improvements will make the main exit to the Albany Airport safer and is projected to result in an economic boost to the immediate area. These improvements would greatly ease the traffic difficulties that plague this area and hinder smooth access to the airport, he said.

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