Marking Two Years of Advocating for the Hudson Valley

Two years ago April 17, when I was first sworn in as a member of the New York State Assembly,  I promised my constituents that I would work full-time for them as their state legislator, that I would be their voice in Albany, and that I would be a passionate advocate for our home, the beautiful Hudson Valley.  It has been a pleasure to keep those promises and an honor to represent this district, so rich in natural resources, history, culture and agricultural traditions.

Truth be known, my favorite part of this job is traveling throughout the district — not actually being in Albany. I love meeting with constituents, visiting farms and local businesses and working with arts groups, tourist sites and social service organizations to brainstorm on how the state can better support them. I have made it my priority to talk directly with local families and businesses, going to their neighborhoods and Diner Stop pic from Dadscommunities whenever possible.  We are now on our third annual “Diner Stop Tour” and to date we have met with literally hundreds of constituents, from one end of this district to the other, over a mug of coffee at their local diner.  The Hudson Valley has some of the best and most iconic diners in the country and I can’t think of a better way to catch up with folks and hear their thoughts and concerns first hand, while at the same time supporting a local business.

Our “Where the Jobs Are Tour,”  now in it’s second year, has been a terrific way to support local businesses, as well.  We have visited scores of Hudson Valley businesses — from large institutions like IBM and the Culinary Institute of America to small family farms and craft distilleries, and many in between.  We have talked with local employers and their employees, learned about their businesses and listened to their concerns. These ongoing tours have allowed me to speak directly and honestly with the families and businesses I represent, and in many cases have informed the legislation I’ve sponsored and supported in the state Assembly.

For two consecutive years, I’ve helped pass on-time, fiscally responsible state budgets that address our priorities. Both budgets reduced the tax rate for hardworking families and provided tax relief for small businesses and manufacturers in the Hudson Valley. Both budgets have worked to phase out the burdensome 18-a utility tax on commercial and residential customers.  And in the most recent budget we secured state funds for Dutchess County that allowed for the repeal of an unpopular tax on home heating fuel.

While it is crucial to have a fiscally responsible state budget, it’s also necessary to make smart investments in our future – and the most important investment we can make is in our children. This year’s budget includes over $160 million for schools in our community, funding that will help educators have the resources to provide the best possible education to our kids. I fought for the budget to include Gap Elimination Adjustment restoration as well as a series of reforms to address the flawed implementation of Common Core, including a ban on standardized testing for students in grades K-2, a delay in using test scores on students’ permanent records in grades 3-8, and a “Parents Bill of Rights” that will safeguard sensitive student data.

In many ways, farmers are the heart and soul of our community, and I’ve worked hard to make sure their voices are heard in Albany, too. Across the Hudson Valley, this year’s budget includes almost $3 million for important agricultural programs that benefit local farmers, including apple and tree growers. The budget also reforms the estate tax by raising the income threshold from $1 million to $5.2 million over the next four years, which will provide relief for many farmers whose property and structures are often valued above the former threshold.  In addition, my bill to provide a tax credit for tolls paid by farm vehicles that must travel on the Thruway to get to downstate markets has passed the Assembly again this year.

In conversations with individuals, families, farmers and business owners across the Hudson Valley, one of the most common concerns expressed is for preserving the unique beauty of our region. Putting this at risk is the threat of “monster” high-voltage transmission lines that would cut through our communities, farms, historic sites and homes, destroying our viewsheds, damaging our local economy, and putting our health in jeopardy. From the beginning I have spoken out against these power lines and I will continue to seek alternative solutions for this “Energy Highway.”

Together, we’ve accomplished a lot over the past two years. But there’s still more work to be done to strengthen our community, support local farms and businesses, provide a great education for our kids, and ensure the Hudson Valley remains the beautiful and unique place it is today. As always, if you have questions about these, or any other community issues, please feel free to contact my office at 845-454-1703 or by email at BarrettD@assembly.state.ny.us.

 

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Women’s History is Hudson Valley History

Women’s history has long been written on the leaves of diaries, penned across the pages of let­ters and scribbled on the backs of photographs.Their stories — even those of bravery or tur­moil — tend to be shared in family lore, not chron­icled in multivolume biographies.

Nonetheless, while our founding mothers may not be documented in piles of books the way our founding fathers are, “It’s clear that most of the men who wrote the Declaration of Independ­ence and the Constitu­tion, fought the Revolu­tion and formed the gov­ernment couldn’t have done it without the wom­en. And it was the women who, by insisting that the men come together for civilized conversations in the early Washington dinner parties, helped keep the fragile new country from falling into fatal partisan discord.hannah-van-buren-1783-1819-wife-everett

“The women made the men behave” wrote Co­kie Roberts in Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation.

We can glean from the words of Roberts that the influence of women in shaping our society and our history was profound. Over the years, women have fought relentlessly to break down barriers, to break records and to pave the way for future generations. The courage and determina­tion of the women who came before us informs us all and deserves our recog­nition.

The Hudson Valley is rich with the history of pioneering women who once lived or traveled through this extraordi­nary region, subsequent­ly leaving their mark on our nation. Our premier first lady, Martha Wash­­ington, served as hostess to dignitaries and in­spiration to troops at Hasbrouck House in Newburgh during the Revolutionary War.

Preacher and aboli­tionist Sojourner Truth was born a slave named Isabella in what is now Ulster County. Aboli­tionist and suffragist Lucretia Mott attended school at the Nine Part­ners Boarding School in Millbrook. Sarah Bern­hardt appeared at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie and Susan B. Anthony spoke on more than one occasion at the Hudson Opera House in Hudson.

Vassar College, which opened its doors to the first class of young wom­en in 1865, became the first women’s college to have a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, a reflection of its academic rigor and innovative faculty, many of whom were pioneer­ing women in their fields.

In celebration of Women’s History Month and in conjunction with the Mid-Hudson Library System, our office is proud to present a spe­cial new booklet that tells the stories of 10 remark­able women who made their homes in Dutchess or Columbia counties from the 18th-21st centu­ries. They were artists and activists, elected officials and educators. One woman was born into slavery. Two were married to American Presidents.

Their stories are part of our region’s history, New York state’s history and American history. Their stories are our stories.

Please visit your li­brary and ask your li­brarian for a copy of Women’s History in the Hudson Valley: Ten Sto­ries from Dutchess and Columbia Counties to read the amaz­ing contributions these women have made to our community and country.

Also, check with your library to learn about local events that will celebrate the women of our region and Women’s History Month this March.

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This Valentines Day Let’s End Dating Violence

An alarming 40 percent of teens – both male and female – have experienced physical, emotional, psychological or sexual End Dating Violence picviolence while dating, and the consequences of an abusive relationship can last a lifetime. Dating violence puts teens at greater risk for the same patterns of violence later on in life. Victims are more likely to struggle in school, suffer from depression or turn to drugs and alcohol as a means of coping. It’s time for us to come together and break the cycle of violence that burdens too many of our children.

While young women ages 16 to 24 are at the highest risk, dating violence can affect anyone. However, only 33 percent of teens who were in an abusive relationship have ever told anyone about the abuse, and although 82 percent of parents feel confident that they would know if their child was experiencing dating abuse, a majority could not correctly identify all the warning signs. It’s vital that we learn the risk factors and warning signs. Dating violence often involves a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power or control over a partner including monitoring, isolating or insulting a partner, extreme jealousy, insecurity or possessiveness and any type of physical violence or unwanted sexual contact.

Here in the Hudson Valley, we have access to outstanding organizations that work hard to reduce teen dating violence and support its victims through outreach programs and counseling. Grace Smith House is currently working with students, faculty and parents in all 13 school districts in Dutchess County. The Family Partnership Center in Poughkeepsie works with local colleges and high schools to address resources and bystander intervention. By teaching students how to recognize the red flags of an abusive relationship and how to help a friend who may be struggling with dating violence, these local organizations are working to promote healthy relationships. Grace Smith House’s 24-hour hotline is available to Dutchess County residents at 845-471-3033and the Family Partnership’s 24-hour Domestic Violence hotline is 845-485-5550. Community Action of Greene and Columbia County’s 24-hour hotline is available to Columbia County residents at 518-943-9211. Anyone who feels unsafe in their relationship can also call the National Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474.

As a longtime advocate for women and girls, I’ve worked for decades with partners like Girls Inc., the New York Women’s Foundation and the Dutchess Girls Collaborative to end abuse and violence against women and girls. There are many unseen victims of relationship violence and Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month serves as an important reminder that we all have a role in preventing violence against our kids. To that end I’ve sponsored an Assembly resolution recognizing February as Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Raising awareness and learning the warning signs can help us protect the ones we love.

For more information on different types or signs of abuse, or for tips on how to help a friend or loved one who may be suffering, visit: loveisrespect.org. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact my office at 854-454-1703 or barrettd@assembly.state.ny.us.

 

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A Campus Where Every Day is Veteran’s Day

When Vassar College students returned last week for the new semester,  among the second term freshmen returning to the cloistered campus in the Town of Poughkeepsie, was a group of U.S. veterans in their twenties and thirties who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now members of the Vassar Class of 2017.

These eleven freshmen have been part of the Veterans Posse20130213-Vassar Posse Pic Program, a pioneering initiative launched by Vassar President Catharine Hill, who has long been committed to increasing access to higher education, in partnership with the Posse Foundation, a national organization which for more than two decades has identified public high students who may have been overlooked by traditional admissions processes and successfully sent them in teams — or posses — to the country’s most selective colleges and universities.

Looking for effective ways to support the growing number of returning veterans and help them succeed after deployment, Vassar is the first college in the country to offer the Posse program for veterans. They have committed to not only funding the full four year tuition for these students, beyond the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon benefits, but also to an ongoing program to bring a new cohort of veterans in subsequent freshman classes. “The most important thing we can do is to have a veteran friendly campus,” said Ben Lotto, former Dean of Freshmen and mentor to this Veterans Posse.

 Challenges have included housing for students with families and the age disparity, but, says Lotto, most of the issues are not dissimilar to many faced by other new students or student groups. “We serve them best if we think of them as just college students,” he explained. The other students and members of the faculty have recognized pretty quickly the richness of experience and diverse perspective this group of students brings to their campus.

 For their part, Posse is expanding the vets program to add Wesleyan College next fall. Many four year colleges and universities have tried for years with limited success to recruit returning vets, who tend to be over represented at for-profit and two year community colleges.  “For some students these may be exactly the right fit,” explained Vassar President Catherine Hill.  “But for others, the selective, private, non-profit liberal arts college may be a significantly better option.” Vassar’s second posse — ten veterans from the Army, Army National Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps — was recognized in a ceremony earlier this month and will matriculate this fall. For more information, visit www.possefoundation.org.

 There are many other initiatives in our region to support returning veterans and their families. Another new program worth noting is a year-long farmer training program called Heroic Food FarmSchool which is designed to prepare post 9/11 military veterans for careers in ecologically focussed farming and food preparation.  For more information about this program, contact Leora@heroicfood.org.

To help access this and other information for Veterans in Dutchess and Columbia Counties we have launched a special Veterans Information link on my New York State Assembly website http://assembly.state.ny.us/mem/Didi-Barrett.

(Published 1.27.14 in the Poughkeepsie Journal)

 

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Parsing Education Issues in New York State

  In recent months, I have had the opportunity to talk with many members of our community — teachers, administrators, parents and students — about the state of education in New York State, particularly the critical and controversial issues of Common Core, “high-stakes” testing, and student privacy.  While there has been a tendency by Reading at Hudson School picsome in the public and the media to lump these all together — often mistakenly under the catchall of Common Core — they are in fact three separate issues that need to be looked at and considered separately.

Over the past decade it has become increasingly clear that American students are falling behind in almost every performance evaluation. In an arena in which we once led the world, we now trail other industrialized nations, often by significant margins. Just as troubling, many colleges are reporting that their freshman students are inadequately prepared for college level work, including poor writing skills and a lack of critical thinking and problem solving skills. The goals of Common Core — which is not a curriculum, but rather a set of shared standards developed and embraced by some 45 states — are to better prepare our students for college and the global job market in the increasingly demanding and ever changing world in which we live.

The 106th Assembly District that I represent includes all or part of fifteen different school districts and I hear a broad range of perspectives on Common Core.  I know that some folks are distressed over the initial drop in test scores. Others, however, are simply excited about setting higher classroom standards. Some fear that students will no longer read enough fiction. Yet, there are others who are pleased by equal time for their own preference for non-fiction. Educators in districts that have a large percentage of transient students applaud the chance for those students to be better prepared to adhere to higher academic standards as life and circumstance move them from school to school or often times, district to district.

Everyone seems to agree that educating more critical thinkers is a very good thing, and while the State Education Department (SED) offers guidelines for schools, they also support flexibility in approach and support in the classroom to encourage every student’s understanding of the material. Nonetheless, while the intent and the content of the Common Core may be laudable, I share the concerns expressed by many about the fast and rocky roll out of these new standards, the lack of materials for teachers and the implications for students with special needs. We have every right to expect that our schools and our teachers would have the appropriate resources — time, funding, materials and training opportunities — to prepare for a major roll out of this scale and this didn’t seem to happen in too many cases with Common Core.

I have real questions, as well, about testing in schools today: Are we spending too much time on testing? Are we testing what matters? Who gets tested and how? Are we using the best kinds of tests? What are these tests meant to measure and do they? At what ages should standardized testing take place?  Often this testing is the result of multiple mandates and evaluation requirements — not just Common Core –  and it is critical that the State Education Department and the school districts rein in excessive testing. I believe students of all ages and abilities can be offered a challenging and stimulating learning environment without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated at school.

On the issue of student privacy and data collection, I have serious concerns about SED’s plans with inBloom, a data collection service which would store large amounts of performance and other data on individual students, and the potential for personally identifiable information to be disclosed, even unintentionally.  I recently participated in a public hearing held by the Assembly Education Committee that explored these plans which, in part, come from the requirements for Race to the Top funding.  In recent months some local school districts have chosen to opt out of that funding rather than share their student data with a third party. During my time in the Assembly, I have voted twice to protect student data and recently joined my colleagues in a letter to Education Commissioner John King requesting that no sensitive student data be shared with inBloom at this point.

As the mother of two young adults, I know that no two children learn in the same way. Our goal as parents, educators, policymakers and stakeholders is to ensure that every child gets the education they need to become a happy, functioning adult and an engaged member of society. I know that many people continue to have serious questions about aspects of public education in our state. However, I also know that we all share the goal of doing what’s best for our children. By addressing these legitimate concerns, carrying out a respectful dialogue, and making adjustments where necessary, I believe we can together do what’s right for the students, schools and communities across New York.

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Moreland or Less Money

A lot of column inches in Albany blogs and daily newspapers have been expended in the last few months, taking the daily temperature of the recently formed Moreland Commission to Investigate Public Corruption. Based on its name alone, the commission has a worthy purpose — there is no question that Albany has stewed in a culture of corruption for way too long. There are good reasons for the profound distrust of state government on the part of the public: Too many decisions made by too few people (going from three to four men in a room does not represent progress) and inadequate openness, transparency and accountability, among them. But I would argue the most insidious is the dominance of money in the halls of power.citizens-united-money-politics

As a newcomer to Albany, and as an Assembly member who had to run two campaigns in eight months — once in March 2012 in a special election to fill a vacancy and then in the November 2012 general election for a full two-year term — it’s already pretty clear to me that the only way to start changing the culture in Albany is to start addressing what the Brennan Center for Justice calls the “corrosive nature of money” in state politics, through meaningful and comprehensive campaign reform.

If we are looking to restore public trust in state government the real conversation needs to be not just about current state legislators refusing to share the names of their clients but rather how do we change an entrenched — but legal — system that has legislators forced to raise money to run every two years while pretty much putting all the cards in the hands of a small number of well-funded special interests. Even those who claim term limits are the solution to Albany’s dysfunction miss the point that those well-funded special interests will still remain, armed with institutional memory and ready to engage the next crop of freshman legislators.

The public should know if the outside income of legislators and other state elected officials comes from those doing business with New York state. But the public should also know the significant amounts of money that can legally be contributed to the election or re-election campaigns of candidates running for state office in New York: Assembly candidates can accept contribution of $4,100 each for a primary, if they have one, as well as the general election (for a total if $8,200) and Senate candidates can accept $6,500 for a primary and $10,500 for the general (for a total of $17,000). For the statewide offices — governor/lieutenant governor, attorney general or comptroller — one individual can donate up to $60,800 if there is a primary and general election.

Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court, in one of the most wrong-minded decisions in its history, opened the floodgates on superPACs, which creates yet another source of campaign money and keeps that political spending from public view. We, in the Hudson Valley, will likely see that play out big time next year as we experience what are predicted to be two of the most expensive congressional races in the country.

Indeed, the only way to truly restore public trust in state government is to enact meaningful comprehensive campaign reform. New York could actually be a leader in campaign reform if we are willing to be bold and start addressing the concerns raised for years by public interest groups like Common Cause, the Brennan Center and others.

Key among these recommendations are a limited public funding program to match small private donations — which has the added benefit of increasing voter engagement; independent, nonpartisan and adequately staffed and funded enforcement of campaign finance laws; reasonable contribution limits with stricter caps for lobbyists and contractors doing business with the state; and improved disclosure of political contributions and expenditures.

Some folks balk at public financing of campaigns, but if they think that taxpayer dollars are not already being expended and public funds grossly wasted in our current pay-to-play system they are fooling themselves.

A culture of corruption doesn’t happen overnight. And change won’t happen overnight, either. But we owe it to the people of New York state — our constituents — to start the process for meaningful reform now.

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Farewell to Summer

It is no secret how much I love representing this beautiful district in the New York State Assembly.  The spectacular natural beauty of Dutchess and Columbia Counties is simply breathtaking — from the majestic Hudson River to the west to grand vistas and walks in Taconic State Park and the Harlem Valley to the east, and, of course, the undulating farm fields in between.

Even with all these lures outdoors, during the summer season now coming to a close, the region’s cultural and historic riches – which seem to grow exponentially every year — easily hold their own against those natural rock stars.

Grateful daily for driving a hybrid, I delighted in every opportunity these past fewAlec_Barrett_Didi_Barrett_David_Barrett months from the always thought-provoking Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar in Poughkeepsie to the brilliant banjo concert in PS 21’s glorious apple orchard setting just outside the Village of Chatham; from the throbbing sounds of Moon Hooch at the Wassaic Project Festival in Amenia to the dance beats of Cumbiagra at Art Omi’s international artists fest in Ghent; from the tech friendly renovation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park to period-dress Independence Day at Clermont State Park to Olana’s Hudson River School of Painting unveiling on a beautiful bluff in Hudson.

Increasingly, this region is being duly recognized for its fabulous farms, food and drink production.  New craft breweries and distilleries are joining the list of venerable wineries. This is fitting as we have world class soils and a legacy as the bread basket of the nation. We nibbled our way through an abundance of farm to table events this summer, including Fishkill Farm’s Centennial Celebration; Sylvia Center’s field dinner at Katchkie Farm; Farm On Foundation’s Hootenany in Copake; A barbecue celebrating interdependence at Hawthorne Valley Farm; the Chef and Farm Brunch in Millerton and Hudson Valley Bounty in Columbia County.

And speaking of food and drink, in the last few weeks my Where the Jobs Are tour has included visits to Dutch’s Spirits in Pine Plains, Clinton Vineyards in Clinton, Coach Farms in Ancram and Harney’s Teas in Millerton, as well as the Omega Institute in Clinton, one of the region’s largest purchasers of local foods.  Since launching our Where the Jobs Are Tour in January, we have visited scores of local businesses — all sizes, for profit and not for profit – to talk with owners, managers and employees about ways we can support our local economy.

As if this wasn’t enough to fill our calendar, this summer we officially opened our two district offices, as well: 12 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie and 751 Warren Street, Hudson. Both are conveniently located in walkable neighborhoods with homes, businesses and schools nearby. Because we think local and celebrate the arts, both feature rotating exhibitions of works by talented local artists, thanks to Dutchess Council on the Arts and the Hudson Opera House.

Please feel free to give us a call and come by to visit.

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