Time to Restore Public Trust in Government

As we embark on this new legislative year, I want to address an issue that has been much in the news lately — ethics in Albany. Since first running for office, I have been committed to bringing more transparency, openness and accountability to state government. I strongly believe in public service. I am a full-time legislator. I have never taken per diems or travel funds for doing my job. I believe that the majority of my Assembly colleagues are in government to do the right thing. Nearly half of us were elected since 2010 and most of us ran on restoring public trust in government.

Several ethics reform measures were passed last year in the state budget and are open for public comment as they prepare to go into effect. These include greater disclosure of outside income. With the enactment of this reform, legislators must disclose all of their outside income: From whom they receive it; the services provided; and whether there is any connection to their public duties or state government.

Further, the budget reforms clarified restrictions on the usage of campaign funds for inappropriate items such as residential home purchases, mortgage payments, rent, clothing, tuition, sports tickets, and dues for health and country clubs.

Additional measures, which were passed into law, include changes in the Assembly’s per diem policy. These strengthen the verification method by which members receive per diems and travel reimbursements, discouraging abuse. Personally, since I have been in office, I have refused to accept taxpayer-funded per diems or travel reimbursements. Most of my constituents don’t get paid just for going to work and I don’t believe I should either.

Clearly other meaningful election and ethics reforms are needed. Critical is stripping corrupt politicians of their state pension. I sponsor A.7704, in which convicted public officials would forfeit their pensions. While the two leaders recently convicted will both receive pensions under current law, the Assembly and Senate are working to reach agreement on a constitutional amendment to finally make this change.

Frankly, the most insidious challenge to real ethics reform is the corrosive role of money in politics. The staggering amount of big money raised and spent around  New York state elections breeds distrust. We must reform the system and move toward a model of reasonable contribution limits alongside a limited public financing program to match small private donations.

One thing we can do right away is close the LLC loophole. Under current practice, Limited Liability Companies are treated as individuals, permitting each to contribute up to $150,000 annually. This loophole allows for multiple donations when one person or corporation owns multiple LLCs, exceeding already generous contribution limits and allowing for the influence of corporations above citizenry. Assembly bill A.6975, which I also co-sponsor, would close this loophole. It passed the Assembly with bipartisan support and awaits action from the Senate.

These and other measures are essential to restoring public confidence that the state works for you — not special interests, not self-serving politicians. Government has and can continue to do outstanding and innovative work. At best, elected officials should be in partnership with our constituents and communities. But for any good, healthy partnership to work, there must be trust. I welcome your thoughts on how best to restore public trust in our state government

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Letter to Gov. Cuomo: Wassaic DDSO Site Needs Action!

Dear Governor Cuomo,

I am writing to express my concerns regarding the long delay in finding proper re-use for the Taconic Developmental Disabilities Services Office campus in Amenia’s hamlet of Wassaic.

Over the past two years, I have met with constituents and town leaders who are eager to see the DDSO site brought back to life and once again transformed into a revenue source for the local economy. This institution, now closed, has been an anchor in the Wassaic community and a major employer in this region since as early as 1930. Since its closure in 2014, local residents and potential investors alike have been alarmed to see this magnificent resource, with breathtaking views of the Harlem Valley, deteriorate into a neglected site resulting in dilapidation, vandalism, and deterioration of historic architecture and loss of revenue.

Members of the community have already made major strides in improving the hamlet and many envision a redeveloped DDSO site as a major piece of this progression. However, they remain hesitant to move forward with plans because of the uncertain future of the site. In addition to this uncertainty, there is also a lack of maintenance at the campus. There are reports of an increased number of break-ins, property vandalism, including the theft of copper pipes, insufficient security, a lack of upkeep for the water mains — which could lead to a disastrous break, and no efforts to remediate the known asbestos contamination in the old architecture.

New York has already invested over $31 million in state funding to keep the infrastructure in working condition, including a sewer treatment plant on site which could be built out to service the surrounding community. It would be a significant loss to let that investment fall to the wayside. With the proper zoning already in place and with committed care for the facility — which has been lacking as of late — the remaining 348 acres on this campus could become a perfect spot for an enterprising entrepreneur to invest.

The owners of the non-state held portion of the site have been engaging in discussions with investors eager to transform the campus. Personally, I believe a film or post-production studio for the growing Hudson Valley film industry would be one fantastic use of the space. With its scenic views, proximity to the Wassaic Project, and easy access to the Harlem Line trains, the site is a natural asset for an arts centered smart growth community with plenty of room for housing, studio space, support businesses and farming.

There is great potential for this site, and the time to act is now. We, and the community, have waited for more than a year now for the Office for Persons with Developmental Disabilities to consider their options. There is real interest in moving forward and as the representative serving this region, I would be happy to work on exploring re-use to make this facility, once again, a stimulator for our local economy and for New York state.

This letter, sent to Gov. Cuomo on September 21, 2015, was also published in the Poughkeepsie Journal. 

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Albany Session Wrap Up

The just completed legislative session may have filled headlines with the drama of arrests and changing leadership, but for me and most of my colleagues the focus remained on fighting for our districts and passing good laws to benefit the people of New York State. Advocating for our students and schools, protecting our rich farmland, supporting the growing agricultural sector, standing up for our veterans, and pushing for meaningful filename-nys-cap-millionethics reform were among my priorities and we made some real strides over the six month session.

On the education front, we elected an outstanding new Regent, Judith Johnson, to represent Dutchess County on the re-energized Board of Regents and brought more than $245 million to our local schools–a $9.6 million increase over last year. We delivered mandate relief to private and parochial schools in the district and passed legislation I co-sponsored (A.7303-A) that addresses concerns over teacher evaluations and high-stakes testing; extends the deadline for the Regents to adopt and implement a new teacher evaluation system; delinks increases in school aid from implementation; creates a new content review committee to ensure standardized test questions are fair and grade-level appropriate; and gives teachers access to materials to better prepare.

I’m proud that three bills I authored that support local agriculture passed both houses and now await the governor’s signature. These establish a toll tax credit for small to mid-sized farms transporting goods on the Thruway to markets (A.2414); help new farmers gain access to prime farmland (A.2369); and evaluate the needs of aging farmers (A.5153). We secured $20 million specifically to protect farmland in the Hudson Valley, as well as funding for the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, Beginning Farmers NY Fund and Taste NY program.

To  make sure all veterans are recognized equally, I authored and passed legislation that ensures veterans of more recent conflicts in the Middle East and the Global War on Terror receive all appropriate property tax exemptions (A.2368-A). Additionally, I co-sponsored the Veterans Equality Act to expand the New York State public pension credit for all veterans (A.8174-A), and secured $350,000 for the Veterans Entrepreneurial Assistance Program.

I am frankly very disappointed that more wasn’t accomplished in the area of meaningful ethics and campaign finance reform. Since I first ran, I have pushed to substantively address the distrust that current policies foment. This year alone was reason to start breaking down the ethical cloud hanging over us and restore public confidence in state government. The LLC loophole legislation, which I co-sponsored, passed in the Assembly (A.6975-B) but was never brought to a vote in the Senate. This bill, which addressed the aggregate amount of political contributions a limited liability company can make in a year, would help curb the corrupting influence of money in elections and dismantle the power of special interests. The pension forfeiture amendment, keeping elected officials convicted of a felony from collecting their taxpayer funded pension (A.4643-A), was passed in both houses, but in different versions that will need to be reconciled next year, and then passed in a subsequent session before being brought to the public for a November vote.

Clearly, there’s more work to be done in Albany. As your full-time legislator, I am committed to advocating for issues important to the Hudson Valley. I hope you will continue to share your thoughts and concerns.   As always, please don’t hesitate to contact our office in Poughkeepsie (845-454-1703), Hudson (518-828-1961) or via e-mail at barrettd@assembly.state.ny.us, if we can be helpful to you.

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Balancing Past and Future in Staatsburg

A friend recently commented about my Assembly District, saying  “I know you have MANY communities!” and she is right. The Hudson Valley is rich with the sense of community, and that’s one of the things I truly love about this region. In representing 19 different towns — and one city — I share in all those communities and get to know the interesting, innovative, engaged people who live there.

One of the region’s most unique and charming communities is the hamlet of Staatsburg, in the northern corner of the Town of Hyde Park.  Reminiscent of an English village that surrounds a great estate, Staatsburg is home to 400 proud residents; the pioneering Anderson Center for Autism; the storybook Staatsburg Library; the verdant Dinsmore Golf Course; and the majestic Mills Mansion, the gilded era country home of Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills and the riverfront Mills-Norrie State Park which together make up the Staatsburgh State Historic Site.

On a recent Saturday, we started our day in Staatsburg at the Anderson Center, which was hosting Autism Tomorrow, a one-day conference that brought together more than 100 experts and advocates to discuss current issues surrounding autism spectrum disorder, as well as changes in research and public perception.  Among the highlights was a talk by Dr. Paul Wang, MD, the head of medical research at Autism Speaks.

The little hamlet was also host to dozens of volunteers for  I Love My Park Day, an annual event  held each spring where 95 New York State Parks and Historic Sites across the state welcome thousands of volunteers to join in cleanup, beautification and improvement projects to help our local parks recover from the hard, cold winter and prepare for the busy summer season ahead. It was great to see an eager group of Marist College students at the Mills Mansion site ready to tackle weeding, raking and mulching on a perfect spring day.

State parks and historic sites like those in Staatsburg can be significant drivers for the local economy. A regional report released last year titled “The Economic Importance of Great Estates Historic Sites and Parks,” identified $65 million in economic benefit from the historic homes along the Hudson River to Dutchess County alone. This translates to roughly $4 billion annually spent by tourists who come to the Hudson Valley to discover the region’s history, culture, cuisine, natural beauty, activities, charming villages, and stunning viewsheds.

Nonetheless, many sites, like Mills Mansion, struggle to stabilize the funding needed to protect museum-quality treasures, increase attendance by having adequate staff for regular tours and secure a viable future.  The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which oversees hundreds of state historic sites, state parks and campgrounds, has invested millions of dollars in capital improvements to the site over the last few years — $6.5 million to restore the grand portico and $14 million on rebuilding stone walls and other grounds work. But significantly more is needed to both maintain a site like this and support ongoing operations. While the monies raised by private donations and groups like the Friends of Mills Mansion help, the State continues to look for ways to ensure the site’s sustainability into the future, including public-private partnerships.

To this end, State Parks supported the introduction of legislation which proposes to increase the maximum length of leases they may offer to private partners from 20 to 40 years in an effort to attract greater investment. For the Staatsburgh site, this change would apply to the carriage barn, dairy barn, and mansion.  These would join Hoyt House and its barns, and Ogden Mills and Ruth Livingston Mills state park, which already fall under 40 year lease terms.  State Parks expects to put out an RFP within the next few months to assess potential investor interest.

To ensure the voices of neighbors, local leaders and other stakeholders are heard, my office and the office of Sen. Sue Serino are hosting a community information meeting with Commissioner Rose Harvey of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 from 5 to 7 pm at the Danny Kaye Theater at the Culinary Institute of America, Campus Drive, Hyde Park, NY.  We encourage everyone with an interest in the stewardship of this site to join us.

Staatsburgh State Historic Site is an extraordinary state and local resource that tells the story of a very colorful part of our region’s rich past. Everyone involved wants to ensure it is experienced by many more people now and into the future.  As a former museum professional, I am committed to working towards the long-term sustainability of this very special piece of New York history without compromising the integrity of the historic home and its collections.

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New York State Invests in the Hudson Valley

From major funding increases for local schools and higher education institutions to MTA payroll tax relief for Mid-Hudson libraries to ensuring the preservation of world-class farmland, the just-passed 2015-16 New York State Budget makes a significant budget pile in chamber piccommitment to the Hudson Valley’s future. This is the third state budget passed since I became a member of the New York State Assembly and I am proud to see that our advocacy is resulting in increased investment by New York State in our beautiful and vital Hudson Valley region.

Strong schools are essential to attracting economic development, as well of course, as their crucial role of educating our future leaders, and this year’s budget grows school aid by $9.6 million, or 4.1 percent, for schools in my district. This brings total education funding for schools in the 106th Assembly District this year to more than $245 million, part of a nearly $1.6 billion increase in education aid over last year across the state, including $70 million towards universal pre-kindergarten for upstate children.

The budget provides an additional $19.9 million for community colleges, increasing base aid by $100 per full-time equivalent (FTE) student, and including a 20 percent increase to opportunity programs. This will directly help both Columbia-Greene and Dutchess Community Colleges as they work to keep college affordable and train the Hudson Valley’s workforce for the jobs of tomorrow.

The final budget continues its commitment to the region’s booming agricultural industry, setting aside $20 million dollars to protect working farmland in the Hudson Valley. With plenty of water, outstanding soils, a burgeoning craft drinks industry — breweries,distilleries,cideries and wineries — as well as our growing number of vegetable, fruit, dairy and livestock farms, our agricultural sector has a bright future here in the Hudson Valley.  But the region’s natural beauty, charm and proximity to NYC make it ripe for development and land values are far beyond what most beginning farmers can afford.  These farmland preservation funds are essential not only for our local and state economy, but for homeland security to ensure New York families always have access to fresh, healthy local food to put on their tables.

We also successfully restored funding to important programs that benefit our region’s farms and farmers, including $1.9 million for farm viability, education and economic development; $1 million for infrastructure grants for the Beginning Farmers NY Fund; more than $700,000 for apple producers; $500,000 for low income seniors to shop at farmers markets; and $200,000 for hops and barley research.

Also of note is a $15 million increase in funding for the Environmental Protection Fund – for a total of $177 million – and a 10-year extension of the Brownfield Cleanup program, which encourages the redevelopment of contaminated properties. Further, in response to the alarming increase in the volume of crude oil being transported through the Hudson Valley via train and barge, the budget strengthens the Oil Spill Fund and authorizes $2.1 million to be used for prevention and cleanup. While we await federal action to mitigate this escalating risk, these funds are a step in the right direction.

For the second year, our office has secured significant state funds to help meet the increasing need for mental health services in Dutchess County following the closing of state facilities in recent years. This $3.5 million will help support integrated care and innovative initiatives like the proposed diversion program for those with addiction and mental health issues.

Upstate colleagues and I made a successful push to increase funding for upstate transit systems by $25 million this year. This aid will help improve services and ensure fiscal stability for organizations like the Dutchess County LOOP Bus System, which thousands of riders rely on each week to get to their jobs, school, doctors’ appointments and local stores. In addition, $200 million was put in the budget for the New York State Water Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2015 to assist cash-strapped municipalities in repairing and upgrading their wastewater and drinking water systems.  The budget also maintains the Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program (CHIPs) at over $438 million and provides an additional $50 million for extreme weather recovery, much needed after this brutal winter.

In a further effort to jumpstart the upstate economy, this year’s budget provides $1.5 billion for the Upstate Revitalization Initiative. The initiative will focus on projects that strengthen, revitalize and grow infrastructure, communities, the workforce and tourism and will be run alongside the Regional Economic Development Councils process already in place. The upstate regions will compete for three top prizes of $500 million to be paid out over five years.

Feel free to call our office 845.454.1703 or email at barrett@assembly.state.ny.us for more information on any of these budget initiatives.


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Women’s History Month 2015 — Telling Our Stories

“History is not just what happened in the past.  It is what later generations choose to remember,” wrote historian and Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in her book Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History

For too many years, the important roles women played throughout American history were not what later generations chose to remember.  Historians, novelists, playwrights, filmmakers — who happened to be mostly men and mostly white — chronicled the exploits of mostly white men. Women’s stories remained buried in attics, inked in diaries and letters, and pressed in dusty period publications.  They patiently waited to be found, explored and ultimately retold by women historians, novelists, playwrights and JANE BOLIN BOOKCOVERfilmmakers.

In celebration of Women’s History Month 2015, and in collaboration with the Mid-Hudson Library System, our office is proud to present our second volume of Women’s History in the Hudson Valley: Ten Stories from Columbia and Dutchess Counties. We are committed to ensuring that the lives and deeds of the bold, smart, visionary women who came before us are remembered here today and passed on to fuel the dreams of future generations.

In this volume we have shared the stories of ten remarkable women with ties to our region who, well-behaved or not, made history. They were writers, editors, activists, scientists and public servants.   They include: Sybil Luddington, born in 1761, who at the age of 16, rode her Sybil_Ludingtonhorse for over 40 miles (farther than Paul Revere) through the night to alert the local regiments to the approaching British troops; pioneering birth control advocate and social reformer Margaret Sanger who as a young woman, in 1896,  came to Columbia County to attend Claverack College and the Hudson River Institute; and  Franny Reese, who in the 1960s led the charge to protect our magnificent Hudson River Valley from Con Ed’s plans to build the world’s largest power plant on the face of iconic Storm King Mountain, at the same time helping launch the modern environmental movement.

Please visit your library and ask for a copy of the 2015 Women’s History in the Hudson Valley: Ten Stories from Columbia and Dutchess Counties  to read about the extraordinary contributions these women have made to our community and country. And please share with us the names of other women in local Hudson Valley history for future volumes.

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Making Universal Pre-K truly universal

dpc_crayonsAs the conversation over funding for Universal Pre-Kindergarten continues in political circles and budget debates, our office is introducing legislation to assure that as we go forward, Pre-K programs, widely recognized as critical for educational equity,  are truly universal and that three and four year olds with special needs are included in both the programming and in the funding.

This important state policy change would be a win-win-win that will improve educational and social outcomes for these children, create a smoother transition for families and school districts, and relieve our counties of millions of dollars of unfunded state mandates that they have shouldered for too long.  In Dutchess County, for example, this would represent nearly $8.5 million in annual savings.

In 2012, some 80,000 three and four year olds received special education services in New York State, but not alongside their more developed peers.  This is despite federal policy that provides that children with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers. Research shows that ‘inclusion’ classrooms provide significant benefits for special needs students.  They encourage developmental and intellectual success—sometimes to the point that kids grow out of their need for special services. The benefits extend to the classroom community, as well, allowing for greater understanding and tolerance of different abilities and learning styles from a very young age.

Today, New York state operates three different pre-kindergarten systems: One for special needs children based on determination by local school districts, administered through local health departments and paid for by county and state dollars; the second system, for mainstream 3- and 4-year-olds, is run by the State Education Department (SED) and funded by the school districts and the state; and the third is the private school system, largely parent financed. These multiple systems result in unequal, splintered and unbalanced service delivery to New York’s preschool children, especially those with special needs.

At the time this system of services was created, counties were promised the state would cover 75 percent of the costs of preschool education for 3- to 5-year-olds. However, the state never fulfilled this commitment.  According to the New York State Association of Counties, our counties along with New York City, contribute 40.5 percent, which in 2014-15 translated to $710 million out of the $1.8 billion program, $260 million of which fell on the counties outside of New York City.

Pre-K services for children with special needs are the only piece of the education continuum that is run by counties and not by SED. As we set a goal of Universal Pre K, this is the right time for the Preschool Special Education program to be transferred to SED and local school districts and be fully funded in the next round of UPK funding. Counties are not equipped to, nor should they be required to, be in the business of educating our children.

New York State owes it to children of all abilities, and the families that love and nurture them, to ensure that their education is a priority worth funding.

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