The transition from Albany to Washington has been an eye-opener for freshman U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, the 1st District Republican. Not yet six months into his first congressional term – and with challengers already lining up for the 2016 election – he’s getting a much clearer picture of how Long Island fits into the massive jigsaw that is the U.S. economy. And he’s finding that whatever topic is on the table, economics are always in play. Always. In his words:
THE ECONOMY, STUPID: Economic discussions take place all day, every day. There might be a conversation in one committee discussing tax reform, while in another committee they’re trying to improve our national healthcare policy, while Energy & Commerce may be meeting on the future of America’s energy plan. In some form or fashion, there is constant conversation about improving the national business climate and creating more good-paying, private-sector jobs.
RELATIVE TERMS: I was elected to the state Senate in 2010, during a really trying time not only for the Long Island economy but the economy all across America. There have been various signs of improvement for the Long Island economy and nationally, but there are other areas of concern that still need improvement. For the individuals who were out of work five years ago but are now able to work and provide for their family, the economy is a little better. For someone who had a job two years ago but is out of work now, it’s not. A lot of people assess the nature of the economy based on how their family is doing.
AS LOCAL AS LOCAL GETS: We may have higher average income on Long Island, but we also have a higher cost of living. Gas prices may be down, but we’re starting to see real estate prices rise again. And all of this while a lot of individuals are underemployed and have to work two or three jobs to keep their families afloat. There are so many metrics in place, and at the end of the day, it’s really felt in the individual’s pocketbook.
UNDERWHELMED: Underemployment is a huge issue on Long Island. Our best hope is to ensure that people are able to get into jobs that pay enough to able to sustain the cost of living here, while also pursuing ways to reduce that cost of living.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE: Albany can always do more. When you’re negotiating the state budget, there’s a never-ending turf war between political parties and geographic regions. The state Assembly may advocate for driving money into the city, while the governor may support driving money into Buffalo. The Senate is usually the strongest player for trying to provide equity between the various regions, but the answer will always be this: Albany can always do more for Long Island.
BRAIN GAIN: Long Island is filled with tremendous potential to create more jobs, between Brookhaven National Lab, Stony Brook University, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, the bright minds educating in all our schools, the pharmaceutical companies working on Long Island and all the investment that’s happening here. For an island that used to be known for manufacturing companies like Grumman, our future is really in the bright minds being educated here. You won’t see a Grumman on Long Island to that extent again. To move forward, we need to tap into the potential of the great research being done here, and convince more entrepreneurial startups to incubate here, grow here and stay here.
NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH: Every local government has ways that they can be more helpful for the employer trying to grow a company here on Long Island. In local municipalities and as a state, we need to make a more compelling argument as to why businesses should stay in New York and why businesses in other parts of the country should consider moving to New York.
TAXING DILEMMA: Having the highest corporate and personal tax rates in America doesn’t help. We have to pursue a better tax policy and cut wasteful spending wherever it’s found. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit out there that New Yorkers continue spending money on. When I first got to Albany, the Legislature and the governor were forced to tighten their fiscal belt – that’s the kind of dialogue that needs to take place even when the economy is going good.
FORWARD THINKING: You can’t always focus only on the current budget, without a long-term view of finances for local or state governments and businesses. A good business model doesn’t look 12 months out. It looks out at least several years and plans for good times and bad. Our best hope is to implement a vision for what Long Island can look like within the innovation economy.
Interview by GREGORY ZELLER