Our Veterans: From Pearl Harbor to the Hudson Valley

As we gather on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to honor our nation’s veterans, I feel privileged to share a very special experience I had when colleagues and I from the Veterans Affairs Committees in the NY State Legislature recently visited Pearl Harbor in the state of Hawaii.  We are just now coming to the end of a year of commemoration marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor and six other military bases on the island of Oahu — December 7, 1941 — a day that thrust a decidedly more naive America into World War II, changing our country forever. It is stunning to imagine what it must have been like to be on that idyllic Hawaiian island on a beautiful Sunday morning — whether you were in the service or a civilian — when the planes started attacking.  USS Arizona

Most moving of the sites we visited is the USS Arizona Memorial, built over the remains of the once mighty battleship sunk almost instantly during the Japanese surprise attack.  It is the final resting place of most of the 1,177 sailors and Marines serving on and killed on the USS Arizona that morning.  Additionally, we toured the USS Missouri, site of Japan’s formal surrender to the Allied Forces on September 2, 1945, ending World War II; and the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, serenely located in a dormant volcano crater.  We also had an extraordinary visit to a Navy SEALS training site, where some of our boldest and bravest take part in some of the most grueling military exercises imaginable.

Visiting Pearl Harbor under these circumstances,  it was hard not to reflect back to my district and the remarkable 75th anniversary “Day of Infamy” exhibit recently at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, which gave a behind-the-scenes peek at how President Roosevelt and his administration first learned about and then reacted to the Japanese attack halfway round the globe. On display at Pearl Harbor is President day-of-infamy-speech-draft-620Roosevelt’s famous “Day of Infamy” speech, in which he personally scratched out the words “world history” and wrote in the word “infamy” —  opening his speech to Congress with “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date that will live in infamy…”

In the spirit of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and their forward-thinking support for returning G.I.s following World War II, my team and I continue to look for meaningful ways to help our returning veterans reintegrate into the community after deployment. Some of this is through legislation and some through direct constituent service work.

In September, Governor Cuomo signed into law my legislation that strengthens the enforcement of property tax exemptions for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The bill reminds assessors that the Persian Gulf conflicts referenced in the real property tax law include, but are not limited to, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Inherent Resolve, ending unnecessary confusion and ensuring that these veterans get the exemptions they deserve.

I want to remind everyone of the $250,000 Veterans Farmer Grant Fund, which was first introduced in the 2016-17 New York State budget thanks to our advocacy, to provide support for returning veterans who want to start or resume farming.  Grants up to $50,000 are available to eligible veteran farmers who are looking to expand and innovate their production, covering costs that would otherwise not be paid by the G.I. Bill. The goal of this initiative is to support veterans returning to New York through work in agriculture while at the same time addressing the widespread need for a new generation of farmers to feed our families. To learn more about qualifications for this grant, check out this link:https://www.esd.ny.gov/new-york-state-veterans-farmer-grant-fund.

As an advocate for parity between mental/emotional and physical health resources and funding, I continue to explore ways we can help veterans manage PTSD, depression, and substance abuse.  I will soon introduce new Outdoor Recreation Heals legislation that would provides state grants for outdoor environmental, ecological, agricultural, and other “ecotherapy” programs as a new resource for veterans and others across our state battling substance abuse, mental and behavioral health issues.

The transition back to civilian life for military personnel and their families is an ongoing process. While we have made some strides for our veterans, there is still important work to do. Whether it is continuing our efforts to end veteran homelessness, increasing access to quality mental and physical healthcare, or eliminating sexual assault and harassment in the military, I will continue to fight for our veterans and their families.

As we thank our veterans, those who served and those who paid the ultimate price for our country, I share this short prayer that Eleanor Roosevelt is said to have kept always, in her wallet: “Dear Lord, lest I continue in my complacent ways, help me to remember that somewhere someone died for me today. And if there be war, help me to remember to ask, “Am I worth dying for?”

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New Yorkers not ATMs for Utilities

This op-ed is based upon the public comments we delivered to the PSC regarding Central Hudson’s proposed rate hike. 

I am honored to represent nine towns in Dutchess County in the state Assembly that are covered by Central Hudson’s gas or electric service. So, as the Public Service Commission (PSC) decides on whether to raise gas and electric rates for Central Hudson customers, I feel a responsibility to urge the PSC to be sensitive to the financial well-being of the Hudson Valley residents.

According to the PSC, gas and electric bills will each see increases of over $8.00 per month, which amounts to around $200 per year for a customer who receives both services from Central Hudson.

This amount is not insignificant for the many seniors who live on fixed incomes, for those not fully employed or under employed, or for residents who are part of still struggling rural towns. Therefore, I strongly encourage the PSC to be conscious of the impact this proposal would have on the household budgets of all ratepayers in our region.

There are some encouraging aspects of Central Hudson’s proposal. This includes the Low Income Discount Program which will provide much needed relief to fixed income and low income residents; replacing old and unsafe pipe is a necessary and important task and promoting energy efficiency with financial incentives to purchase lighting and modern heating and cooling systems is laudable.

Other pieces of the proposal – including devoting money to a new workforce training facility – raise questions. Surely, Central Hudson can accommodate the functions of this facility into existing space and spare the ratepayers this cost. The proposal to increase the frequency of tree trimming and right of way maintenance, which I understand to be a substantial cost and the largest driver of rate increases, is hard to accept for ratepayers who will then see more of their paychecks go to gas and electric bills. I urge the PSC and Central Hudson to take a hard look at this piece of the proposal and what impact it would really have on reducing service interruptions.

Further, New York state utility customers are subsidizing three nuclear power plants through charges to their utility bill, which will cost New Yorkers a whopping $1 billion over the next 2 years. This is effectively another rate hike that consumers pay as part of the delivery cost on their utility bills. The increase, which the PSC voted to implement, makes justifying Central Hudson’s proposal an even tougher pill to swallow.

Simply put, New Yorkers should not be viewed as an ATM for public utility companies, and it is up to the PSC to take a stand for families in the Hudson Valley.

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Urging Gov. Cuomo to Protect our Hudson River

The following remarks are from our press conference with Sen. Sue Serino, Scenic Hudson and Riverkeeper to urge Governor Cuomo to sign A6825a/S5197b. 

Good morning and thank you to everyone who has joined in this concerted effort to fight for critical new protections for our beloved Hudson River, the spine, as well as the soul of the historic Hudson Valley.IMG_2571

The bill we are urging the Governor to sign is another chapter in the long and continuing story of the relationship between humans and the majestic Hudson, often called  “America’s River.”

From the native Americans who inhabited our valley before European arrival and settlement, to those who fought for and founded our young country, to the inventors and industrialists who introduced all kinds of  transportation on and along the river, to the Hudson River School painters, to the 20th and 21st century New Yorkers — who brought bridges and power stations and litigation and pollution — people have long engaged, for better and for worse, with our iconic river.

The past decades have proven especially challenging for the health of the river.  PCB contamination from many years of industrial dumping left fish dangerous to eat, threatened the habitats of critical wildlife and forced communities, activists and our government to stand up and stand together to demand action.  

At great cost and through the committed efforts of environmentalists, legislators, and community leaders and residents, the health of the river has improved and none of us wants to see that massive effort degraded.  Many communities along the Hudson rely on it as the primary drinking water supply and a number have made huge strides in revitalizing their waterfronts, turning the river into a vital community asset. We all benefit from a #HealthyHudson.

By the same token, without appropriate state oversight, any proposal that would open up the river to enormous increases in petroleum vessel traffic or storage in order to transport volatile domestic crude oil poses serious risks to humans and wildlife habitat. New York State must be able to review all federal anchorage proposals with an eye to public health, safety risks and environmental concerns.

I believe that the bill Senator Serino and I were able to move through both houses of the New York State Legislature with nearly unanimous support gives the DEC a new, critical and well-crafted tool to use when making determinations about where they may exercise their existing authority to create “Tanker Avoidance Zones.”

Absent this bill, the state will have missed an opportunity to assert its shared jurisdiction with the federal government and we could not let that happen, especially with so many Hudson Valley communities having made official pronouncements in support of our efforts to pass the bill.

I stand ready to continue to engage in discussions about any future proposals for new petroleum traffic on the Hudson, as well as about the existing anchorage site off Hyde Park.   I believe with the new legislation we’ve passed we have helped put New Yorker’s interests and safety at the forefront of that conversation.  Gov. Cuomo, please sign this bill to protect our Hudson River and the communities and habitats that depend on it.

Thank you all for your efforts and for joining us today.

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Our 2017 Women’s History in the Hudson Valley Booklet

This year, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of  New York State signing woman’s suffrage into law. New York’s legislation became law three years before the U.S. passed the 19th Amendment– which ensured the right to vote for women across the country– and is an example of the Empire State’s ongoing role as a pioneering advocate for women’s rights.  

 

Fittingly, our 2017 volume of Women’s History in the Hudson Valley: Ten Stories from Columbia and Dutchess Counties includes the story of Lucretia Coffin Mott, a Quaker minister and abolitionist who helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention and fought for women’s suffrage.  Several women included in our booklet this year were activists on other fronts: Gail Webster was an affordable housing advocate; Earline Patrice was a community activist who raised money, collected holiday gifts and prepared meals for her city’s needy residents. Susan Nye Hutchinson and Ida Helen Ogilvie were pioneering educators who taught advanced math and broke ground in science when there were very few women drawn to these fields.  
It has been said that those that record history control what gets remembered.  Our office, in partnership with the Mid-Hudson Library District, produces and distributes these booklets each year as part of Women’s History Month to do our part to ensure that the lives of women and girls from our region that came before do get remembered.  Please enjoy these stories of 10 Hudson Valley women who made a difference.  We stand on their shoulders.  

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Being Fair to all Direct and Home Care Workers

Over the last few years – and increasingly since the #befair2directcare movement kicked off on social media – my office has been at the forefront of advocating for our region’s direct care and home health providers. These are the people who help care for our disabled family members, friends and neighbors, our home-bound elderly, our veterans. They work in our many regional not for profits and they help people with disabilities stay independent and in their homes. As a member since 2012 of the Assembly’s Mental Health Committee and newly appointed Chair of the Assembly’s Task Force on People with Disabilities, I have fought and advocated for this essential workforce and the individuals and families they serve since I was first elected.

This is not easy work and the dedication of direct-care workers is unparalleled. Yet, they are among the lowest paid workers in the state. These low wages, and new constraints on the organizations that they work for, mean that many of the committed and compassionate individuals who have done this challenging work in the past are now making the choice to take jobs at fast food businesses, for example, with their higher minimum wages.  This has resulted in tremendous turnover and instability in a sector that serves people who really need continuity and security from their caregivers.

To help address this crisis, the Assembly has included $45 million in its budget proposal to support this vital industry. This funding will support a living wage for these workers, which will, in turn, help ensure patients receive the experienced,  consistent personal care that they need and deserve. Further efforts are needed to address transportation challenges for care workers in rural communities and to help “professionalize” this service work  – often dominated by women and immigrants – to ensure it is valued appropriately. Indeed a recent story in the NY Times noted the field of home health aides “is expected to grow 38% by 2024, faster than most other occupations, thanks in large part to the aging baby-boom population.”

To be as informed and responsive as possible to the needs of patients, workers, and agencies, our office has convened a new Human Services Advisory Council, chaired by former Anderson Center for Autism CEO Neil Pollack, which includes representatives from local direct-care agencies. The number one issue discussed at our initial meeting was workforce stability. This cuts across all agencies and impacts thousands of individuals in our region. The Assembly has taken a first step in addressing the problem by providing funding in its budget proposal, but this funding must be included in the state’s final budget, which is due on March 31st.

This wage issue is also hurting the growing consumer-directed personal assistance program which allows those with physical disabilities to recruit, hire, supervise and, when necessary, terminate his or her own caregiver. This workforce also faces long hours, high stress, and low wages; oftentimes these individuals are caring for family members or loved ones. The Assembly has addressed this issue in the budget by ensuring Department of Health funding is directed to the workers where the money is needed most.
The state has a responsibility to ensure the most vulnerable of its citizens – including those with physical or developmental disabilities – have access to quality, consistent, accessible care. The Assembly has lead through our budget proposal and my office will continue to work hard over the next two weeks to ensure this funding is included in the state’s final budget. I hope you will join me in this fight.

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Embarking on a Third Full Term in Government

The following are the remarks I gave at my Swearing-In Celebration, officiated by Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul on January 28, 2017 at the Hudson Opera House.

Thank you all for being here to celebrate with me, my family and our team.  I am especially grateful to Lt. Governor Kathy Hochul for joining us today.  While I first met Kathy when she was in Congress, I have delighted in getting to know her as our wonderful Lt. Governor and have loved joining her on visits to my district,  whether we were checking out the family bedrooms at FDR’s home; posing with pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt at Val-2017swearing-in-picKill; sampling the wares of the Culinary Institute of America or window shopping right here on Warren Street.  She has been a gracious ambassador for state government; she has taken the word “peripatetic” to dimensions Aristotle could never have imagined; and she has been a welcome partner and collaborator with our growing but still too-small cohort of women Assemblymembers.  There are now 45 of us,  not yet one third of the chamber of 150.

Many thanks, as well, to my dear friends at the Hudson Opera House, an extraordinary institution of art, community and history — Susan B. Anthony, among others, visited twice.  The Opera House has been rightfully credited with being a catalyst for much of the rebirth of the City of Hudson and is now poised to embark on a fabulously exciting next phase as it opens the stunningly restored second floor great hall, thanks in large part to New York State support.

How about those adorable Children of the Promise Neighborhood! I never tire of boasting about the Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, a cradle to career initiative based on the Harlem Children’s Zone model.  It’s footprint is the Hudson City School District, which in addition to the City of Hudson, covers parts of six other Columbia County towns, many quite rural. The Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood is one of only a handful across NY State and it has been a remarkable force for community, opportunity, social change, creativity and good, here in Hudson.

So with treasures like these, as well as a wealth of arts and cultural talent; new wineries, craft distilleries and breweries; glorious viewsheds, world class farms, compassionate service organizations, and very cool people, you can understand why it has been a true joy to represent the beautiful, innovative and historic 106th District in the NY State Assembly!

I embark on my third full term in government at a particularly strange and unsettling moment for our country, state and region. While I am, of course, happy to have won on November 8th, I am also haunted by the sharp divisions not only in our country, but also in this district.  Hillary Clinton won the two counties I represent,  but only by the smallest of margins. Donald Trump won a great many of the towns in my district.

Like you, I fret over the policies being introduced by this new administration and how they stand to negatively impact both our country and our region in profound ways: Our majestic Hudson River, finally regaining its health after decades of abuse, is at serious risk of spills and explosions from an increase in rickety oil trains, overloaded barges and unsightly anchorages as a result of what appears to be a newfound commitment to fossil fuels.

We all know the high costs and the havoc that would result from repealing the Affordable Care Act, especially with not replacement plan.  In addition, both Upper Hudson and Mid-Hudson Planned Parenthoods, targeted for defunding, are the primary health care providers for thousands of women and men in our communities — college age and older —  providing birth control, testing for sexually transmitted infections and screening for breast cancer. In fact, most federal funds to Planned Parenthood are simply reimbursements through Medicaid for services to low income patients.

Our Hudson River Valley was home to Frederic Church, Thomas Cole and America’s first major art movement and vital and vibrant organizations, colleges, libraries, museums and public radio stations throughout the region depend on the National Endowments for both the Arts and Humanities for support. Eliminating these endowments, as has been threatened, would have a devastating impact on the creative, cultural, social and intellectual environment — much greater than the savings of less than $300 million on the federal budget.

And the targeting of immigrants and unimaginable threats to religious freedom strike at the very core of who we are.  Our region was settled by immigrants seeking these freedoms: Dutch and German farmers — the names of our towns tell their story. Our cities and villages were built by Italians and Irish, and African Americans escaping the Jim Crow South; now our neighbors may be from Bangladesh, the Caribbean, India, Mexico, South or Central America. We also know that Women’s Rights and LGBT Rights and Disability Rights are all Human Rights.  Our diversity is what truly makes America great and I believe most Americans value that. I, for one, will never give up fighting for those Four Freedoms our own President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke so eloquently about on January 6, 1941.

If the empowering marches many of us joined in last weekend were any indication, women and men of all ages and all ethnic backgrounds are ready to stand up to fight for OUR America.  I’m thrilled that some half dozen young women have said to me in the last two months: “I feel like I need to run for something!”  Yes!!! Do it!

I love that throughout my district small groups of neighbors are gathering, strategizing and studying the “Indivisible” play book for next steps.  As Gloria Steinem said, “sometimes just pressing “Send” is not enough.”  President Obama challenged in his Farewell Address — “Show Up  Dive In!”   And I would add: Be prepared to stay in it!  This is not a time to expect quick fixes.

Earlier this week, a friend said about today: “I hope that in your remarks you will tell us about accomplishments you are proud of — women never talk about their own accomplishments,” she said. So, here are a few:

I am very proud that in just four years in office, we introduced 24 bills that were signed into law.  Several specifically effect our local communities like creating inland waterway status for local creeks to make them eligible for public funding.  Others have statewide implications: In one, we improved health care options for Lyme and tick-borne disease patients and another made early screening for breast cancer much more accessible.  I’m especially excited about a new bill we introduced just last week which is truly groundbreaking.  Our Carbon Farming Bill would create a tax credit for farmers who engage in practices to sequester carbon, or put carbon back into the soil; these include no-till systems, planting cover crops, managing compost application and planting more trees in pastures.  This work is being done by pioneering farmers in our region and this bill would make NY the first state to use this “carrot” rather than “stick” approach to carbon — supporting and incentivizing our farmers while helping the state reach its climate goals.

I am proud of being a strong and effective advocate for this region.  From my first months in office, I have brought the resources of the State to our communities. First it was a panel of state commissioners and emergency services who met with 300 Columbia County residents at the West Ghent Fire House right after the terrifying TCI fire in 2012. Then we convened several dozen county commissioners and mental health providers working with schools, seniors, veterans and the substance abuse community to discuss shrinking local mental and behavioral health services with the Chair of the Assembly Mental Health Committee. And over the last two years, we addressed aging in a pair of community roundtables with state leaders — one on Aging as a Woman’s Issue and the other on Aging in Place in a Rural Setting. And every March for Women’s History Month we produce a booklet telling the stories of 10 women from our two counties who have changed history.

I am also proud to be a passionate proponent of our local farmers. I have made sure my NYC colleagues understand that it is our small and midsized Hudson Valley family farms that feed their constituents every week through Farmer’s Markets and CSAs, so they, too, need to be concerned about our issues: Farmland preservation, clean water and healthy soils, or transitioning the next generation of young farmers. Recently I began working with members of the NY City Council to secure funding in the city’s budget to protect Hudson Valley farms, ensuring a source of healthy fresh food for their communities, much the way they protect the NYC watershed.

I want to thank you again for your friendship and your continuing support.  This will always be a challenging district. I’ve already heard there is a fellow in Dutchess County making noises about challenging me in 2018.

But we are so blessed to live in this very special place. We know we have our work cut out for us as we fight for the values we share, the diversity and differences we have long celebrated, the natural resources we cherish and the history and culture we embrace. We also know it’s worth it.  I look forward to meeting up again at a Diner near you!

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Hugs as Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform can take many forms and include a range of policies: Raising the Age, sentencing and bail reform, revisiting solitary confinement, or increasing alternatives to incarceration, as in the new Stabilization Center in Dutchess County. It can also be something as seemingly small as allowing an incarcerated parent to touch, hug and kiss their child.

jail-drawing-dworinart

Typically, contact visits between incarcerated parents and their children might include a hug and kiss at the beginning of the visit, but then the rest of their time together is spent on opposites of a barrier. The Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood (GHPN), in partnership with the Osborne Association’s NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, has developed a pilot program with the Columbia County Jail to allow incarcerated parents who are in good standing with the jail expanded bonding visits with their children with no barrier between them. This program is designed to help maintain the family connection during a traumatic time, alleviate the stress and anxiety a child may feel while their parent is incarcerated and reduce recidivism. Since these enhanced bonding visits with family are not open to every incarcerated parent – there is a screening process done by the jail administration – it incentivizes good behavior and creates a positive atmosphere inside the facility.

When a person is incarcerated it is easy to say “lock them up and throw away the key.” But when a person has children, that thinking ignores the trauma that incarceration, including the arrest and trial, has on an innocent child. Mom or Dad is still Mom or Dad to a child whether their parent is in jail or at home and those familial bonds remain vital. The mental and emotional well-being of children is severely impacted by the abrupt removal – sometimes in front of the child – and absence of a parent, as well as the stress and stigma associated with having a parent in jail. Because of this, the GHPN program includes more than just visits.

The GHPN, based on the Harlem Children’s Zone, utilizes a cradle to career model in the services it provides to Hudson City School District students, and layered within that model is the Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. In addition to the jail visits, the program focuses on education and outreach; data collection which allows them to accurately analyze the impacts on this vulnerable population; advocacy for the rights of children of incarcerated parents; and mentorship programs.

This initiative is the result of a remarkable partnership. It took a local organization to notice and advocate for a hidden population and a county corrections system willing to be open-minded. Corrections officers had to be trained, a new space in the visiting room developed and trust established between the GHPN, Columbia County Jail, the CO’s, incarcerated parents and children. That may seem like a lot, but the impacts and results have been life-changing. While this initiative is currently only at the Columbia County Jail, I believe the model can and should be replicated across the state. If we are committed to breaking the cycle of incarceration and ending the enormous social, emotional and financial toll it takes on our communities, we must think “outside the box” and look to efforts like this innovative and compassionate program.

 

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