As the election season is in full swing, I thought it would be appropriate if I continued my tradition of checking in with the candidates in our major races. The following is a small snippet from an interview that I recently conducted with state Sen. Pete Harckham, which will be aired in its entirety at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Optimum channel 74.
Senator, please share with us what’s going on in Albany.
These are unprecedented times. We have been inordinately busy, working on behalf of our constituents. First, due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, my office has had to help hundreds and hundreds of our citizens get the unemployment benefits that they deserve but that they couldn’t get because the department of labor’s website crashed. So, we had to jump in to help. We’ve also been helping people get small business loans. And we’ve been dealing with food insecurity, which has been ravaging the Hudson Valley, so we’ve done six food drives, specific and massive food and sanitizer drop offs as well. Then, lo and behold, we get a hurricane on top of this. So, we had to work with our municipalities to get the power back on.
Have there been any bills passed in Albany to help us through these terrible times?
We’ve been working both as a legislature but also in coordination with the governor’s office. So, for example, when retired police and health care workers were asked to come back and help us but there was a cap based upon our pension laws that capped how much they could earn, we decided to take action. Given the state of our emergency, I backed a bill to remedy that and the governor, through executive action, took care of the problem. I also sponsored a bill to bring much needed relief to small businesses. Once again, mirroring the bill, the governor set aside $100 million through executive action to provide that exact relief.
What about our budget?
We are very concerned about the state of our local economy. We have lost close to $14 billion in sales tax and other revenue due to the pandemic… That makes it all the more important that we get a bailout package from the federal government, so we don’t have to cut money earmarked for education, health care, or aid to municipalities.
Besides your actions to help us during the pandemic, has the legislature passed any other significant bills?
In addition to our work with regards to the pandemic and its economic fallout, we’ve passed some significant legislation. For example: 1) To assist the communities around Indian Point… 2) to confront the opioid crises we’ve expanded the Good Samaritan law… 3) Environmentally, we passed a law to protect 40,000 miles of streams that had been deregulated by the Trump administration…So, yes, we are not letting our present crisis stop us from accomplishing what we would have done during “normal” times.
Most parents are really upset about the situation with the schools this fall. What’s your take on that?
We need to have a community conversation about this crisis. There is not one model fits all for every school district. We know that kids learn and socialize better when they are in school. However, we need to be concerned about the fact that kids can be spreaders of the virus. So, we are very concerned about the health of our kids, school staff, the teachers and of course the people our children go home to. So, each community needs to have these discussions, whether it’s a hybrid of remote and in person, or all in person. That decision is up to every individual school district. It’s our job in Albany to be supportive. In 2019, we increased funding by $1 billion to our educational system.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to be an elected official running for re-election during these insane times. Can you describe what your day is like?
It’s been very interesting. We’ve been doing meetings, conferences, and communications in general through Zoom. But I still need to be out there. I have made it a point to personally thank our essential workers, be they Metro North employees, first responders, hospital personnel, or supermarket employees, they all need to know that their government (and this senator) appreciates their service and the risks they are taking on our behalf.
How did you personally deal with our recent storm?
I was out eight or nine days straight, visiting municipalities, visiting constituents. I was constantly on the phone with our electrical suppliers on behalf of our citizens and the municipalities…I think it’s critical that I and my team be out there all the time…We wear masks, socially distance, etc., but it’s my obligation to serve my constituents in person whenever possible, and that’s what I intend to always do.
If you’re blessed with another term, do you have a vision for what you would want to accomplish during the coming years?
Of course, we take nothing for granted, but yes you always have to have a vision of what you want to accomplish going forward. If I am fortunate enough to win the trust of my constituents on Election Day, I have several things I want to accomplish come Jan. 1. First, I will continue to focus on what our communities need. Each community has different needs and we have always made that our number one priority. For example, in Yorktown, we brought close to $500,000 in help to the local government and also to local community groups including the schools, the police and the library. We will look to provide the same level of support in the coming years. Second, in this district we are in a phosphorous reduction basin. That fact costs local communities millions and millions of dollars to meet these mandates as well as impacting our drinking water. I have proposed a relief package which over the next five years will remedy this problem. Third, I chair the committee on alcoholism and substance abuse. These issues do not get the attention they deserve, so next year I will propose we merge the Department of Mental Health with the Department of Behavioral Health which will make it a cabinet level position, where it will get the attention it deserves.