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Senator O'Mara shares his perspective on issues facing New York State government.

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Senator Tom O'Mara


The opening of this year’s regular deer hunting season means it’s time for this annual reminder on the Southern Tier-based Venison Donation Coalition.

And with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) already having reported record-breaking sales of hunting licenses for 2020, it’s an especially meaningful reminder during this time of great need throughout so many communities continuing to be hard hit by COVID-19.   

Over the past 20 years, the Coalition has helped put a good meal on many tables across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions, and throughout New York State.

Millions of tables, in fact.

Since 1999 the coalition has coordinated the processing of an average of 38 tons of venison annually and, through its partnership with The Food Bank of the Southern Tier and other regional food banks, provided more than 4 million highly nutritious, low-fat, high-protein servings to individuals, children and families in need.

Talk about making a difference, and talk about timely. Good meals are needed now like never before.

The opening of the regular deer season represents one of the most important economic cycles of the year. Hunting is a mainstay of the regional and statewide recreational economy, by some estimates accounting for $2 billion of economic activity and nearly 30,000 jobs statewide. Steuben County, for example, remains one of the Northeast’s premiere deer hunting destinations.

The Venison Donation Coalition is supported by sportsmen’s organizations, of course, but also by local farm bureaus, food banks, civic and religious groups, and so many individual citizens. I am always grateful to call attention to its work and its contributions to the overall quality and strength of our communities. 


It was over 25 years ago when a local "Hunters for the Hungry" program was prepared to donate 400 pounds of venison for distribution to the needy and discovered that state law prevented it. As a result, “Hunters for the Hungry" programs operating throughout New York at that time, 1993, were being told they couldn’t donate over 10,000 pounds of venison to food banks and other organizations providing meals to the unemployed, shut-ins, senior citizens and other needy citizens. It made no sense. As a result, the Legislature quickly acted to establish a program to authorize the donations. The resulting Venison Donation Coalition got started in 1999 when sportsmen’s federations in Chemung and Steuben counties got behind the effort with funding to pay two processors. Two decades later, the coalition is a broad-based partnership including many area supporters.

It is, simply put, an admirable effort. Never underestimate the spirit of commitment and giving it has encouraged.

According to the Coalition, “We would not even have this program if it weren’t for our amazing processors. They work diligently on getting the deer to the food banks in record time at a reduced rate. Our many thanks to our meat processors for making Venison Donation a success! Meat processors, like farm families, like hunting families, like Food Bank families, have strong family values, strong work ethics and a true desire to help folks. Many meat processing businesses have been family run for generations. It’s the same kind of family values and grassroots efforts that make the Venison Donation Coalition a success.”

As I have often said, we will continue to develop infrastructure, promote tourism, improve schools, protect citizens, and do anything and everything possible to enhance our economic position. Nevertheless, along with these fundamental responsibilities, the ongoing work of groups and organizations like the Venison Donation Coalition is important, inspiring, and meaningful.

As the Coalition notes, “One dollar goes a long way to help curb hunger throughout New York State.” The donation of just $1 provides four meals. For every dollar donated, the Coalition puts 90 cents towards processing donated venison.

For more information, visit the Venison Donation Coalition online at www.venisondonation.com or call 1-866-862-3337 (DEER).

My very best wishes to you and your families for a safe and meaningful Thanksgiving.


Senator Tom O'Mara


Firemen’s Association of the State of New York President John Farrell said last week, “There has been an alarming decrease in the number of volunteer firefighters in New York State in recent years.”

He noted this challenge following the enactment of a new law creating a state-level Volunteer Fire Fighter Recruitment and Retention Task Force. Under the law, which the Senate unanimously approved in July, the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control will guide the task force’s examination of the recruitment and retention challenge. The task force will issue policy recommendations for future action by the Legislature, which should include, in my view, addressing the overbearing training requirements for even the most basic level to be a volunteer firefighter.

I look forward to closely monitoring this task force. It will be among the most important work getting underway in state government in 2021.

It’s a challenge -- and a potential crisis -- that I’ve long highlighted and joined together with other Upstate legislators to sponsor legislation to address.

I wholeheartedly agree on the fundamental importance of our volunteer firefighters, who play a central role in so many communities across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions.

As I’ve said many times before, the challenge of recruiting volunteer firefighters and EMTs, especially in our rural, upstate communities, deserves all of the attention it gets. Keeping our corps of emergency services volunteers strong has to be a statewide priority. Our volunteer fire departments have long been the foundation of public safety and security, and the center of community service and civic pride. It’s a challenge that we need to keep working on and raising awareness about because in addition to public safety, the economic impact of volunteer emergency services to communities is enormous.

Nearly 90 percent of New York’s municipalities are protected by volunteer firefighters.

According to FASNY, “Volunteer firefighters are most prevalent in smaller, suburban and rural communities that have a lesser tax base than larger towns and cities.”

FASNY released an important economic impact study several years ago that remains relevant to this discussion going forward. Among numerous findings, this one was particularly alarming (and not new): it would cost local communities and local property taxpayers statewide more than $3 billion to replace volunteer fire departments with all-paid fire services.

In other words, the continued diminishment of volunteer firefighter ranks and volunteer ambulance personnel would be devastating to already overburdened local property taxpayers.


I’ll zero in on just one of the findings from the FASNY study, “Tax Savings and Economic Value of Volunteer Firefighters in New York.” Replacing volunteer departments with all-paid squads would result in county property tax increases averaging 26.5% statewide. For regional counties, the increases would be much higher than the statewide average: Chemung (33.8% ), Schuyler (36.1%), Steuben (40.3%), Tioga (48%), Tompkins (45.4%) and Yates (33.8%). 

New York government faces daunting economic and fiscal obstacles as a result of COVID-19, as well as challenges in our schools, in maintaining local roads and bridges, water infrastructure, and many more.

Nevertheless, our long-term focus must include the recruitment and retention of volunteer emergency services personnel.

While it’s true that there are factors outside of government’s influence that contribute to declining ranks, there are also actions that government can and should take to help reverse it.

Hopefully the new Recruitment and Retention Task Force will jumpstart the Legislature’s movement on necessary actions.

Volunteer firefighters make great sacrifices to protect the health, safety, and well-being of lives and property. These fire departments are cornerstones of so many communities.

We cannot risk their decline.

Senator Tom O'Mara

New York’s farmers and the agricultural industry as a whole have been hard hit over the past year.

Despite many burdens weighing on farm families, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Democrat majorities of the state Legislature piled on a new law last June with serious consequences in the months ahead. The law’s opponents -- count me firmly among them -- warn that it could produce a nightmare of a ripple effect.

Known as the “Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act,” the law took effect on January 1 and, among other provisions, it grants collective bargaining rights, overtime pay, paid family leave and unemployment benefits to farm laborers. Since the dawn of labor laws, farm labor has been treated differently than other employment because, plain and simple, it is different. Farms "have to make hay while the sun is shining." It's seasonal and requires planting, fertilizing, pesticide application, pruning and harvesting, all of which are driven by Mother Nature, not by a nine-to-five, five-day workweek.

Governor Cuomo has already proposed changes to ease cost increases on farms, a move that by itself signals trouble ahead. How hard will the governor push for the changes? Will the Legislature’s progressives ever accept them? These are key questions without answers.

What we do know is that many farmers view the law as a threat. According to one recent report, farm labor costs in New York State increased 40 percent over the past decade. Total farm labor costs are at least 63 percent of net cash farm income in New York, compared to 36 percent nationally.  

One of the law’s most onerous provisions created a three-member Farm Laborers Wage Board that is supposed to hold the first of at least three public hearings by March 1. Following hearings, this wage board is empowered to change the law. I was especially critical of this action to grant such far-reaching authority to an unelected, unaccountable body. 

Yes, the New York Farm Bureau is represented on the board. It is fundamentally important to have farming’s voice directly involved. However, the Farm Bureau’s voice (and vote) can be easily overridden by the board’s other two members -- the state’s largest labor union, the AFL-CIO, and an appointee by the governor’s Labor Department.  

The fear, which I stressed during debate on the Senate floor before voting no, is that this board will move quickly to revise the act in ways that will increase farmworkers’ pay at the great expense of farmers.

Farm Bureau President David Fischer warns that the March public hearing is far too early to be helpful in assessing the law’s impact.

“Keep in mind, the first hearing will happen before the first crops are even in the ground,” he said recently. “It will be incredibly difficult to judge in a significant way how farms and their employees are managing schedules and dealing with the financial burdens just two months into the year.”

The Farm Bureau wants the board to have adequate time, resources and appropriate data to assess the law’s full impact before recommending changes. I am skeptical, to put it mildly.  

It remains imperative for upstate legislators, for whom the farm economy is a foundation of communities we represent, to keep close watch on a wage board now holding so many farmers’ futures in its hands.

We cannot risk the state mandating and regulating more farms out of business – and that is exactly what’s at stake here.

Senator Tom O'Mara

It can be frustrating to have to keep banging the proverbial drum of opposition when the right thing to do seems crystal clear. There’s no choice in New York State government now. 

Another week of the legislative session goes by yet, despite story after story after real life story from our streets and neighborhoods, Governor Andrew Cuomo and the extreme-liberal, downstate leaders of the Legislature take no action to fix what is so obviously a broken (and dangerous) bail reform law.

There are plenty of reactions to their inaction. Take your pick. I’ll take former New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton, who gets straight to the point, “What the hell were they thinking about in Albany when they crafted this mind-boggling set of limitations on the criminal justice system?”

What were they thinking, yes, but also, What are they thinking now? The law took effect on Jan. 1. There has been a daily drumbeat of opposition from law enforcement, district attorneys, judges, elected officials, and everyday citizens fearful of the consequences. Consequences, by the way, that continue to mount and already include the deaths of innocent victims by repeat offenders set free under this irresponsible new law.
It bears repeating: It should be clear to any reasonable person that “No Bail” reform as it stands puts public safety at risk. 

Unfortunately, there appears no place for reason in this Legislature under one-party, downstate Democrat control in a party where those pushing a Democrat Socialist, radically progressive agenda have dropped anchor and are firmly moored within the highest levels of New York decision making. 

Make no mistake their agenda favors criminals over crime victims. It is an agenda disdainful of a commonsense tenet of public safety: some criminals belong behind bars. It is an agenda so clearly out of step with the legislative district I represent but that nevertheless forces us to face its consequences.  

Governor Cuomo let another week go by without demanding change – another week that produced another string of victims. 

The Democrat majority leader of the Senate and the Democrat Speaker of the Assembly allowed their chambers to gavel out without taking action. Unbelievably, however, the Senate Democrat majority did find time to begin pushing their next criminal justice reform: automatic parole hearings for every inmate who turns 55 while in prison, even those serving a sentence of life without parole for horrific, violent crimes inflicted on society.  

The advocates of the new “No Bail” reform, for their part, stepped up an already aggressive campaign to push the position legislative leaders are clinging to: No changes needed.

“No Bail” has become the poster for the pitfalls of one-party control of government where checks and balances are thrown out the window or, to put it another way, criminals walk out the door.

Remember that when the Legislature enacted bail reform, not a single Republican in the Senate or Assembly voted for it. Last week, many of us began offering constituents an online petition to join our fight for repealing the law. 

We will keep delivering the message that this is bad public policy. It’s dangerous and it will get worse. Our communities and the law enforcement community as a whole deserve better.  

We will keep highlighting the danger and keep pushing for a commonsense, safer, more workable solution that achieves necessary reform but that protects public safety as priority number one.

To sign our petition, visit my Senate website: www.omara.nysenate.gov and click on the “Repeal Bail Reform” icon on the home page.


Senator Tom O'Mara

How long will they wait?

That’s the big question in state government at the moment. Governor Andrew Cuomo and the extreme-liberal, downstate leaders of the Legislature continue to shrug at making any changes to New York’s newly enacted bail reform law -- despite ongoing and repeated warnings from regional and statewide district attorneys, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, judges, and many elected officials that the law is a threat to public safety and unworkable.

In fact, not a day goes by without another warning from another county sheriff that another dangerous criminal has been set free. Not a day goes by without another news report about another repeat offender.

It should be clear by now to any reasonable person that bail reform as it stands puts public safety at risk. Still, the Democrat majorities in both houses of the state Legislature keep shrugging off the warnings. That’s irresponsible, to say the least.

Governor Cuomo failed to say even one word about it as part of his 2020 State of the State message to the Legislature last week. The governor stayed silent. 

The Democrat majority leader of the Senate from downstate Westchester County said, “We want to see if (the law) is doing what we want it to. We will make tweaks if necessary.” Tweaks? The law is not doing what it should be doing, unless what you want the law to do is unlock the cellblocks and send potentially dangerous criminals back into our communities, day after day, with no safeguards.

The Democrat Speaker of the Assembly from the Bronx sees no need for change. Many advocates of the disastrous new bail reform law, in fact, are now aggressively speaking out against making any changes to it at all.

They take these positions while over the past few weeks since the law took effect, it has been like a statewide jailbreak and there have been far too many real life examples of serious crimes committed by individuals released under this new No Bail reform. 

Remember that the list of crimes for which judges are now required to release defendants from custody without bail include: manslaughter in the second degree; criminally negligent homicide; assault in the third degree; robbery in the second and third degrees; A1 felony drug sales with no weight limit; grand larceny of more than $1 million; aggravated vehicular homicide; promoting or possessing an obscene sexual performance by a child; aggravated cruelty to animals; imprisonment in the first degree; specified felony drug offenses involving the use of children; failure to register as a sex offender; promoting prison contraband in the first and second degree; and many, many more that are equally troubling.  

Bail reform, as it stands, needs more than tweaks. When the law was enacted, not a single Republican in the Senate or Assembly voted for it.

Last week, I joined Senate Republican colleagues to call for a vote on repealing the law, which would allow for comprehensive public hearings that could lead to a reform done right. It could lead to a strict and sensible system of criminal justice that recognizes public safety above all, which it should, instead of a system that willingly fails to recognize that some criminals belong behind bars.

Our amendment was defeated along party lines. 

Our communities deserve better than a radically redefined criminal justice system that comes at the expense of victims and their families and loved ones, communities and neighborhoods, and taxpayers.

How long will they wait?


Senator Tom O'Mara

I’ve been a member of the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction since 2014. The task force was established at a time when local police departments and addiction centers, including many across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions, were pointing to the alarming rise in the availability and abuse of heroin and opioids.  

Since its formation, this crisis has only accelerated and deepened. 

Significant resources have been committed to examining the myriad causes and effects, and to find solutions. State funding, for instance, has doubled to nearly $250 million in this year’s budget.

Nevertheless, the work of responding is just beginning. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Every day, more than 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) pegs the economic cost of prescription opioid abuse at nearly $79 billion annually in the United States, “including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.”

A report earlier this year from the Albany-based Rockefeller Institute of Government made this summary, “We found that drug deaths continue to surge in New York State. In one year, from 2015 to 2016, drug deaths increased 29 percent — from 3,009 total deaths to 3,894. In fact, it was the single largest annual increase in the number of deaths we examined going back to 2010. Overall…from 2010-16 there has been a 121 percent increase in the number of deaths in New York State.”

That’s just a small sampling of the impact. It does not even begin to tell the personal, family stories of loss.
Consequently, last week, our Senate task force released our latest, comprehensive report detailing a series of recommendations for ongoing state-level actions to address the burgeoning addiction crisis affecting communities. The report follows and continues to build on the series of public forums the task force has held across the state since 2014, including forums I have sponsored in Elmira and Penn Yan. 

What the Senate task force has heard directly from the local front lines in fighting this heroin and opioid crisis is the foundation we are building on. This local input, which has been reflected in actions New York State has taken over the past several years, helps target the necessary responses and keep our strategies as up to date as possible.

Local input has been the driving force behind the recommendations we’re now putting forth to build on and strengthen the state-local partnership that's going to remain critical to putting in place the most effective combination of law enforcement, awareness and education, and treatment and prevention.  

We need to keep acting and keep working, and we will. The report details the task force’s emphasis on a four-pronged response focusing on prevention, treatment, recovery, and enforcement. Among many other actions highlighted in the new report, legislation spearheaded by the task force has served as a national model for other states and in the creation of the federal Substance Use-Disorder Prevention that Promotes Opioid Recovery and Treatment (SUPPORT) for Patients and Communities Act recently approved by Congress. 

The report’s 11 recommendations emphasize a plan to utilize public and private resources to help underserved populations and others without access to treatment, as well as improve existing support systems to keep enhancing and strengthening New York’s evolving fight against opioid abuse. 

The full report, which includes more information on the recommendations and details about numerous legislative actions spearheaded by the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction, is available on my Senate website, omara.nysenate.gov.

Senator Tom O'Mara

Not long ago, I welcomed the opportunity to join local Assemblyman Phil Palmesano to announce a package of state grants to many of the region’s public libraries. These grants, we both have long agreed, are among New York State’s smartest and most effective investments. This specific funding is distributed through New York’s Library Construction Grant Program. 

The 2018-19 state budget increases funding for this vital program to $34 million. Overall, this year’s state budget is a strong one for libraries. Although Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to cut state library aid this year, the Legislature rejected the governor’s cuts and, instead, increased funding. The final budget provides $96.6 million in state aid to libraries, including the $34-million investment in capital and construction aid. 

I have also worked over the past three years to secure additional funding totaling more than $380,000 that has been allocated to individual libraries comprising the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes Library Systems. A public library is a vital community resource. I’m hopeful these grants will help local libraries in the face of difficult fiscal challenges.

According to the New York State Library, which administers the construction grants, surveys have estimated that the cost of public library construction and renovation needs statewide totals more than $1.7 billion. More than 51% of the over 1,000 public library buildings across New York are over 60 years old. Another 33% are more than three decades old. Many of the state’s local public libraries are unable to accommodate users with disabilities, and cannot provide Internet, computer, and other electronic technologies to users because of outdated and inadequate electrical wiring. They also do not have sufficient space to house the library's collection and lack sufficient space for public access computers.

Construction grants are critical to the mission to help individual libraries and library systems make renovations and upgrades, update electrical wiring to accommodate computer technology, renovate facilities to provide wheelchair accessible entrances and become fully accessible to persons with disabilities, and provide community meeting spaces.

Three years ago, Assemblyman Palmesano and I sponsored a new law (Chapter 480 of the Laws of 2015) that, for the first time, included “installation and infrastructure of broadband services” as a specific project category eligible to receive funding through the Library Construction Grant Program. Prior to the law’s enactment, libraries were unable to access funding through the popular grant program specifically for broadband purposes including cable, wiring and modems, and network terminals and access points.

A public library is a fundamental resource for area families, seniors, and countless other community residents. We are always hopeful that these grants will help local libraries better afford and address their renovation needs. Public libraries, especially in many rural, upstate communities and regions, are New York’s leading digital literacy educators, just one of many vital community roles our libraries fulfill. This role is likely to expand in future years. These ongoing investments will help more and more public libraries stay ahead of the curve to continue meeting the increasing demand. 

In recent years, I have been particularly proud to receive the New York Library Association’s “Outstanding Advocate for Libraries Award” and to be one of only seven state senators to receive the “Library Champion Award” from New Yorkers for Better Libraries.

Most importantly, these recognitions are reflective of the strong commitment that’s needed in Albany for libraries – a commitment that must keep growing. It’s why I have been especially supportive of library aid, which is fundamental to helping libraries and library systems make renovations and upgrades to their facilities. Library aid is an investment in economic growth and workforce development, overall educational quality, and it produces a substantial return by making an enduring, positive difference for many local communities.

Here is the key fact from the state Education Department that makes the case: Every dollar invested in state library aid returns seven dollars in local library services

Senator Tom O'Mara

An alarm goes off every now and then in New York State. But in my opinion, not nearly enough in this case.

Late last year, the state comptroller released a report highlighting the fact that New York State’s current total state debt, roughly $64 billion, is second only to California’s, which is at $87 billion. To put it another way, New York State has the second-highest debt total in America. 

According to the comptroller, the state’s debt load is just going to keep increasing in the foreseeable future, reaching nearly$72 billion over the next four years. Our state’s annual debt service payments, according to the comptroller’s report, will move beyond $8 billion annually by the conclusion of the state’s fiscal year in 2021-2022.

That’s right. New York State taxpayers will be on the hook for more than $8 billion a year just to service the state’s existing debt. Not to necessarily reduce the debt, mind you, only to keep up with the required payments, especially interest, over time. Rising debt service costs limit the state’s ability to fund ongoing programs or balance the budget, to say the least.

Or to look at it even more direct terms for every man, woman and child in New York: According to the Albany-based Empire Center, using the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis, state and local government debt per person in New York State is pegged at $17,528. That equals the highest debt rate per capita in the United States, significantly higher that the next highest state of Massachusetts ($13,733).

The fact of New York State’s current debt load raises plenty of questions and numerous proposals for reform. For the purposes of this column, however, my point is straightforward: The next time you read or hear about the latest call for bigger spending in New York State, remember the debt load taxpayers already have to shoulder. It is already the second-heaviest burden in the nation. It is already on track to keep rising, without any help at all from New York State’s next big spenders. 

It is an incredibly complicated fix – and I don’t mean to minimize or simplify its complexity or difficulty at all – but controlling state spending, for the long term, strikes me as priority number one. It’s at least one commonsense strategy and the reason I have long supported and voted for enacting a permanent, strict cap on annual state spending. The less the state spends on ever-growing, and larger and larger, programs and services, the more fiscal flexibility the state will have to focus on doing things like cutting taxes or reducing debt.

We have to get a handle on it. We have to become serious about getting it under control. The practice of “pay as you go” needs to become the norm, not the exception. When the state gets a windfall it should go to pay down the debt, not to the governor’s favored developers as economic development incentives.

Imagine what could be accomplished if the state wasn’t strapped with an annual $8-billion debt service payment?  We could level the playing field and begin making New York State a competitive place to do business and create jobs for all, not just the chosen few.

New York State has been a big spender for a long time. The current debt isn’t the result of an overnight spending binge. It’s the result of continually neglecting, over time, the consequences of past bad spending practices.

The comptroller’s December 2017 report (“Debt Impact Study: An Analysis of New York State’s Debt Burden,” https://www.osc.state.ny.us/reports/debt/debt-impact-study-2017.pdf) concludes with this statement, “Comprehensive reforms of the State’s debt policy and capital planning practices are needed to ensure that New York can address its capital infrastructure needs over time, while keeping debt costs affordable and reducing the burden on future generations.”

The burden on future generations is already alarming. We better get focused on making it more manageable, the sooner the better.

Senator Tom O'Mara

Over the past several years, the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions have been well-represented in any number of national online polls to decide the “Best Of” America’s attractions, small towns, events, parks, regions and other designations.

Inevitably, these polls generate a great deal of local buzz on social media and in talk around town. There may be some tempted to ask “What’s the Big Deal?” -- given all of the challenges and issues brought to our attention every single day of the week. 

But we’re wise to not overlook the benefits.

Recently, for example, Watkins Glen International (WGI) was recognized as America’s “Best NASCAR Track.” It’s the third time that fans and supporters have helped The Glen take a victory lap in this competition -- and that’s the bottom line.

These competitions provide opportunities for local citizens, local leaders and local communities to share some local pride. That’s important. It can help keep our region on the national map. In other words, the value of a “Best Of” designation as a marketing tool should not be underestimated. Every little bit helps in a day and age when it is tough -- very tough -- to gain any kind of worthwhile attention.

So I always welcome the chance to join Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and other local leaders to help promote local attractions, events, communities or regions vying for success in these online competitions. If you read or hear about one being underway, please join us in voting.

In the case of WGI, it is with great pride that we get behind one of the world’s iconic sporting venues. It is, after all, right in our back yard and we’re smart to take every opportunity to single out The Glen for unique contributions to American motorsports. WGI events annually generate over $200 million in economic activity across the region and account for more than 2,000 local jobs. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series weekend in August is one of New York’s largest sporting events and attracts fans from all 50 states, as well as 16 different countries.

Is The Glen America’s “Best NASCAR Track”? You better believe it, and voters in this year’s online competition once again delivered that message loud and clear. Thanks to everyone who took a turn behind the wheel and kept voting, day after day, to support our hometown track. It’s a well-deserved national honor for track officials and staff, drivers and, most of all, the fans who help make The Glen one of the renowned places in all of sports and an absolute anchor of the culture and economy of our Finger Lakes and Southern Tier regions. It was a great ride and a great show of support for one of our own!

Now I’ll share a reminder that the Finger Lakes is currently among 20 finalists in the competition to be named America’s “Best Wine Region.” Once again, it presents a chance for all of us to show our local pride. We know that the region’s approximately 140 wineries, four wine trails, more than 9,000 acres of vineyards, and roughly 55,000 tons of grapes form the heart and soul of New York State’s increasingly renowned wine-and-grape industry. 

Here’s a chance to let America know it too.

The “Best Wine Region” competition closes on Monday, August 20, at noon. You can vote once a day, every day, on any Internet-capable device on the following website:

Senator Tom O'Mara

Eighty years ago, during the height of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote in a letter to America’s governors, “The Nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

That statement remains as true today as when it was written in 1937. Last week in Albany, farmers, researchers, policymakers and other experts gathered for New York State’s first “Soil Health Summit” hosted by, among others, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.

It is a rapidly evolving modern-day scenario getting the attention it deserves, and demands. It is simply one of the most alarming and critical challenges facing farmers and the agricultural industry overall throughout New York State, the nation and the world.

Last year the Nature Conservancy released a report, “rethink Soil: A Roadmap to U.S. Soil Health,” examining how over the past century agricultural technology improvements have helped farmers continue to feed a world population that has soared from under 2 billion to over 7 billion. At the same time, however, it is taking a toll on America’s agricultural soils. The report estimates that “the annual societal and environmental costs of the status quo are up to $85.1 billion annually through unintended effects on human health, property, energy, endangered species, biodiversity losses, eutrophication, contamination, agricultural productivity, and resilience.”

The Senate and Assembly Environmental Conservation Committees also hosted a panel discussion last year, “From the Ground Up: Why Soil Health is Key to Sustainable Food Production.” The discussion focused on soil health and resiliency, giving it the attention it warrants and encouraging action on the development of a New York State Soil Health Management Network modeled after the successful federal Soil Health Network. 

Furthermore, last year’s state budget included funding from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund for a “Soil Health Initiative” at Cornell University. The initiative works to facilitate ongoing soil-related research and guide additional efforts toward the establishment of the state-level Soil Health Management Network. The envisioned network would be a public-private extension and education consortium. Last week’s Soil Health Summit continued to advance the next steps. You can read more at http://www.summit.newyorksoilhealth.org.

We have witnessed firsthand in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions over the past several years how soil health and resiliency have such a significant impact on farm productivity, profitability and sustainability. The same is true statewide. The ability of soils to resist drought, flooding and other impacts continues to emerge as a critical conservation, economic growth, environmental protection and food quality challenge in New York State, as well as across the nation and world.

The bottom line is clear: the sooner the better on developing and implementing a comprehensive, state-level response. As always, Cornell CALS is at the forefront of the emerging research and response strategies. 

The fundamental, underlying importance of this challenge -- and the necessary pursuit of forward-thinking programs and policies to tackle it -- is highlighted in a recently released book by author David R. Montgomery from the University of Washington, who was a keynote speaker at last week’s New York Soil Health Summit.

In “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” he echoes FDR’s warning from eight decades ago when he writes, “Unlike other environmental problems such as dwindling water supplies and loss of forests, the degradation of soil fertility has gone relatively unnoticed. It happens so slowly that it rarely becomes the crisis du jour. Therein lies the problem. The once-Edenic, now-impoverished places that spawned Western civilization illustrate one of history’s most underappreciated lessons: societies that don’t take care of their soil do not last.”

Senator Tom O'Mara

The New York State Police and Southern Tier law enforcement agencies continue to do outstanding work to combat the resurgence of methamphetamine (and other illegal drugs) in too many local communities and neighborhoods.

Most recently, in Steuben County, following a months-long investigation involving officers from five police agencies and Child Protective Service workers, “Operation Safe Summer” took dangerous criminals off the street.

Steuben County District Attorney Brooks Baker said, “This cooperative multi-agency investigation led to 26 sealed indictments being handed up against 19 individuals for drug trafficking, narcotics, methamphetamine and other controlled substances in the Village of Bath, the Town of Bath and the surrounding communities." 

Good work. Clearly, law enforcement continues to be the front line in this long-standing battle. We have to keep strengthening and updating the laws they need to be most effective.  
The Senate recently approved legislation I have sponsored for several years targeting the resurgence of meth-related crimes locally and statewide. It would significantly increase the criminal penalties for manufacturing, selling and possessing meth, and targets meth labs.

Specifically, the legislation would increase the criminal penalties for the possession of meth manufacturing material and the unlawful manufacture of meth, implementing a series of increasingly severe felony offenses.  One provision makes it a Class A-1 felony, punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, for criminals convicted of operating a meth lab for the second time in five years. The legislation also establishes the crime of manufacturing meth in the presence of a child under the age of 16 as a Class B felony.  

Meth labs pose unacceptable risks to our neighborhoods, as well as roadsides and wooded areas where children and others can be exposed to the hazardous and toxic residues of these labs. They threaten the safety of police officers and first responders, and the public at large.  

We need even tougher laws against dangerous and irresponsible meth cookers who have no regard for the health and safety of the rest of us. Their only byproducts are addiction, crime, overdoses, broken families, tragic deaths and violence. They increasingly burden local systems of health care, criminal justice and social services. Awareness and education, prevention and treatment are fundamental responses. But so are tougher laws and criminal penalties, and it’s time for the Assembly Democratic leadership to act.

I’m also sponsoring legislation to:

  •  increase the criminal penalties for the possession and/or sale of meth by implementing an increasingly severe set of felony offenses; 
  • enhance the ability of local police and district attorneys to track and prosecute violations of restrictions on over-the-counter sales of cold medications that are key ingredients used in the manufacturing of methamphetamine; and 
  • target one of the worst dangers associated with clandestine meth labs: explosions and fires. The legislation would add the crime of first-degree arson, a Class A-1 felony, to the list of charges that could be levelled against a meth cooker who causes a fire or an explosion that damages property or injures another person.

From “Operation Safe Summer” to many others, the increasing frequency of meth-related arrests and other incidents across the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions is alarming. 

It calls for imposing stricter criminal penalties for possessing the material to make or for manufacturing this highly addictive, dangerous and destructive drug.  

"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

Senator Tom O'Mara

The memorials -- the words and the places of remembrance -- are essential. But so are the actions that must always go hand in hand with the tributes.

Or, in a thought commonly attributed to our nation’s first President, George Washington, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

Recent Memorial Day observances here at home, and across our state and nation, were poignant expressions of appreciation for the bravery, sacrifice and service of veterans. Appreciation, as noted in the phrase above, represents a fundamental part of this equation. The other key part is how veterans are treated. 

With that in mind, the state Senate recently approved a comprehensive legislative package addressing a range of concerns and challenges facing New York’s active military men and women, and veterans. The legislative action came during the same week that the Senate inducted nearly 60 New York State veterans into the Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame, including long-time Steuben County farmer and World War II veteran Warren A. Thompson. We valued the opportunity to salute Warren as a symbol of the “Greatest Generation.” I will also take this chance to commend the Bath VA caretakers who accompanied Warren to Albany for the induction ceremony and who, day in and day out, deliver, in outstanding fashion, their own commitment to our veterans’ well-being. 

The measures the Senate acted on seek to recognize the sacrifices of America’s active military and veterans -- to pay better attention to how they are treated. Our military men and women have made and continue to make a remarkable commitment to serve this nation. In return, we have a duty and responsibility to take actions and provide the programs and services they need and deserve.

The legislation focuses on employment, health care, home ownership, tax relief and a range of other economic, educational, public safety and government services challenges and concerns, including measures to: 

-- create a task force to study and improve the job market for veterans. The task force, which would be comprised of stakeholders from state government, the private sector, and institutions of higher education, would hold annual public hearings and make recommendations on how the state helps military veterans find and maintain employment;

-- create a certified service-disabled veteran-owned business enterprise development and lending program to help provide financial and technical assistance to disabled veterans who have started a business in New York;

-- encourage public employers to hire military service veterans by establishing a “Hire a Vet” program to provide grants to municipalities employing a veteran;

-- help service-related disabled veterans afford a home by giving those with a VA disability rating of 40 percent or higher a preference in applications to the state’s Affordable Home Ownership Development Program;

-- establish a Veterans’ Gerontological Advisory Committee to help address the needs of a state with the second-highest veteran population in America, and an older veteran population whose needs and problems pervade multiple geriatrics and gerontology disciplines. At no cost to the taxpayers, the advisory committee will be able to provide crucial recommendations to the Director of the state Office for the Aging on policies, programs, services and trends affecting the aging veteran population;

-- direct the state Division of Veterans’ Affairs and other state agencies to study and address the alarming trend of homeless persons who are veterans in New York, as well as the amount of homeless veterans who are also parents; and

-- establish the “Veterans’ Memorials Preservation Act” to help protect veterans’ memorials throughout the state.

Earlier this year, the Senate also restored significant funding in the 2018-2019 state budget for veterans’ initiatives and increased funding for numerous programs that support veterans and their families.

Let us all hope that appreciation and treatment always remain guiding forces whenever and wherever decisions affecting America’s veterans are made.

"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

Senator Tom O'Mara

It is fast becoming one of the most anticipated days on the State Legislature’s spring events calendar.

I’m talking about the New York Wine Industry Association’s (NYWIA) annual “Sip and Sample” tasting event in Albany, which, since 2014, I have been proud to host with Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and several other legislative colleagues. This year’s fifth edition on May 7 featured wineries, cheese producers, restaurateurs and food manufacturers from the Finger Lakes, Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and Central and Western New York.

A group of grape growers, winery owners and other industry professionals established the NYWIA (www.nywineindustryassociation.com) in 2009 as an advocacy, public awareness and education organization.  

NYWIA President Suzy Hayes, of Miles Wine Cellars in Yates County, said, "’Sip and Sample’ has become one of the favorite events for legislators and their staff because they get the chance to try wonderful New York products while meeting the producers themselves in a festive, informal setting. It is a showcase of New York's finest....the products and the people that make New York a ‘grape’ place to be!"

The event has steadily grown over the past several years. It is now one of the Legislature’s primary tools to help keep our incredible wineries, cheesemakers, food manufacturers and other producers at the forefront of state government’s attention. It has become a rite of spring at the Capitol. (Visit my Senate website, www.omara.nysenate.gov, for a full list of this year’s participants.)

Assemblyman Palmesano and I are proud to promote the excellence and quality of these sectors of the Empire State’s agricultural economy. They represent amazing and interesting stories of culture, history and economic growth. These industries are indeed economic engines for communities right here at home, of course, but throughout the state as well from Long Island to the Hudson Valley up into the North Country and out into Western New York. In every region of the state, they are providing good, sustainable livelihoods for thousands of New Yorkers. 

The New York Wine & Grape Foundation (https://www.newyorkwines.org/) estimates the state’s grape, grape juice and wine industry annually generates upwards of $13 billion in overall economic benefits to New York State. It directly employs more than 62,000 workers. It encompasses 450 wine producers and more than 11,000 acres of vineyards.

I have long noted that the rise of New York wines to secure their place on the national and international stage is one of this state’s greatest of all success stories and, with the heart of the industry right here in the Finger Lakes, we should be proud to take every opportunity we can to celebrate it.

On the cheese front, the New York State Cheese Manufacturers’ Association (http://www.nycheesemakers.com) was founded in 1864 – in other words, it remains one of our oldest and proudest industries. New York is the fourth leading state in America in total cheese production. I am proud to recall that my grandfather was a cheese maker who operated the Colosse Cheese Factory in Oswego County in the early 20th century, where he helped produce award-winning cheeses. 

Again, our region is prominent. The Finger Lakes Cheese Trail was established in 2010 to establish what has become a highly successful and vibrant partnership between small family farms and cheesemakers. According to the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance (http://www.flxcheese.com), you would put 500 miles on your car if you visited each of the farms on the trail. Amazing.

By the way, the Alliance’s signature event, the Finger Lakes Cheese Festival, takes place this year on Friday, July 28 at Sunset View Creamery in Odessa, Schuyler County. Visit the Alliance website for additional information and tickets.

These industries are cornerstones. They represent some of the best of New York.


"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

Senator Tom O'Mara

In a recent commentary for the Times Union, the state capital’s hometown newspaper, I welcomed the opportunity to comment on one of today’s most pressing energy challenges. 

In part, I wrote:

There was a time not long ago when environmentalists hailed natural gas as a cleaner energy solution. During his first Earth Day speech as President, Barack Obama lauded domestic natural gas as a critical bridge fuel to a renewable energy future. Near the conclusion of his presidency, he credited the use of natural gas for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reminding us “we've got to live in the real world.” 

That message got lost somewhere along the line. If we do not start remembering that we live in the real world, the cost of heat and electricity will be unaffordable for most New Yorkers. In the real world, demand for natural gas is at an all-time high. That fact has been good for the environment and the American economy, including in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania. 

Since 1990, U.S. natural gas production is up 37 percent and greenhouse gas emissions are down 17 percent. From 2005-2015, natural gas consumption increased 24 percent – contributing to dramatic drops in a number of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide (down 66 percent), fine particulate matter (down 34 percent), and nitrogen oxide (down 20 percent). One of the important benefits of natural gas is the way it works in concert with renewable forms of energy. The main challenge with relying on renewable sources of energy, such as wind or solar, is their inherent unreliability. Storage capacity simply is not yet ready for prime time and cannot meet our energy demands. Continued innovation and investment in this area is critical to the future viability of renewables.

Electric power needs to be used when it’s generated. If the sun’s not out or the wind isn’t blowing, a wind turbine or solar panel isn’t much use to the electric grid. Natural gas is a strong complement to renewables because it can be brought online quickly, ensuring reliability in systems when renewables are not producing.  The Business Council for Sustainable Energy highlights this important link between domestic natural gas and renewables in a recent report. According to the report, natural gas and renewables together generated 50 percent of U.S. electricity in 2017, up from 31 percent in 2008. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. power sector fell to their lowest levels since 1990. Furthermore, while we have made some gains in renewable electricity supply, our heating fuel remains at about 95 percent fossil fuel-based and natural gas is by far the cleanest of that heat source.

Unfortunately, a group of vocal activists refuses to accept the very real limits to renewable energy. They aggressively work to strangle the development of much-needed energy infrastructure. New York State policymakers block projects that are essential to supply energy to the entire New York and New England region – with very real world consequences for consumers cut off from access to affordable energy. The zealots may be successful in assuring that we don't freeze to death in the dark, but ignoring natural gas may mean that we freeze to death with the lights on.

This past winter, New England was faced with constraints to its energy supply caused in part by the blockade of domestic pipeline construction, which Governor Cuomo has singlehandedly blocked. Faced with a harsh winter and limited access to domestic natural gas, New England imported liquefied natural gas from Russia just to meet basic heating and electricity needs. 
In New York, the Governor has laid out a set of very ambitious renewable energy goals. I agree that we should be leading the way in renewable energy development. But we also have to make sure that residents and businesses have the energy they need right now to live and thrive in New York. 

We can keep the lights and heat on, and emissions down, but only if we stop this senseless opposition to natural gas and critical energy infrastructure.

"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

Senator Tom O'Mara

As communities and organizations around the globe celebrated Earth Day on April 22, it’s worth noting that the recently enacted state budget continues a series of critical actions that bode well for the short- and long-term future of environmental conservation in New York. 

Or, as the Nature Conservancy in New York stated, “The budget includes several landmark achievements for New York's environment, including maintaining the Environmental Protection Fund ... Additionally, the continuation of funding for the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act will ensure communities experiencing health risks from declining water quality due to inadequate or outdated wastewater and drinking water systems will have access to funding for upgrades and repairs, as well as conserving the sources of drinking water to prevent them from becoming polluted in the first place.”

I agree that this year’s budget is highlighted by the continuation of a fully funded Environmental Protection Fund (EPF), something many conservation advocates spent years fighting for, and that they have rightly hailed as a great victory. The EPF supports critical environmental initiatives including clean air and water projects, flood control and restoration, and open space preservation. It makes great environmental and economic sense. 

The EPF, for example, helps create local jobs. Studies have shown that for every dollar of EPF funds invested in land and water protection, the state and localities get back seven dollars in economic benefits -- a solid investment by most measures. The EPF enjoys an impressive record of government investment. It strengthens a broad segment of New York’s citizens and communities like very few governmental programs ever have. In short, strengthening the EPF within the context of the entire state fiscal plan covers a lot of common ground in order to achieve a great deal of common good. It continues to help us achieve, in the words of former President and legendary conservationist Teddy Roosevelt, “the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

On the EPF, the Business Council of New York has said: "The programs contained in the EPF are incredibly diverse and touch every New Yorker’s life in some manner through land conservation, urban forestry, sustainable waterfront planning, agricultural sustainability, pollution prevention programs and more.”

The fully funded EPF is surely a highlight, but this year’s budget does even more. It continues, for instance, the state’s multi-year, major investment in drinking water infrastructure and source water protection. This action helps localities undertake vital and long-overdue water infrastructure improvement projects, such as sewer and municipal water line repairs. It has become particularly timely as drinking water quality concerns and crises regionally, statewide and across the nation have become increasingly acute. 

Other highly praised actions will assist local parks, trails and waterfronts; help step up the fight against invasive species; enhance farmland conservation; encourage smart growth communities, including renewable energy initiatives; and boost farm-to-school strategies to connect local schools to local farmers. 

On the environmental front, we have had and will continue to have differences, and face controversies. With this Earth Day, we must remember that the challenges and crises we face are more difficult than ever. It’s equally true that the governmental and political context in which we have to confront these challenges and crises is more complex and highly charged than ever -- a fact that often does not make the task easier. 

Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to stewardship and conservation. We have a responsibility to do our best to address the challenges, to work through them, and consider and negotiate them in a balanced, deliberate, fair, serious and sensible way. That is the great hope of Earth Day.

"From The Capitol" is a weekly column distributed to local media by Senator O'Maras office for publication. 

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