Ithaca Times sat down with the candidates for the Congressional, Senate and NYS Assembly races to break down their policies and stances.
Polls are currently open for early voting, so we talked to the candidates for local races to help you decide what choices to make. Election Day is Nov. 3, and is the last day to vote. We encourage you to be informed and make your voice count.
This article is part of a three part series written by Glenn Epps, Tanner Harding and Sydney Keller.
District 58 Senate race
Two attorneys are going head-to-head as Democrat Leslie Danks Burke takes on incumbent Republican Sen. Tom O’Mara for a spot in the state senate representing district 58. This is Danks Burke’s second attempt at unseating O’Mara after she lost by nine points, or 10,782 votes, in 2016.
Danks Burke describes herself as a longtime advocate for education, healthcare and rural economic development. She also cites being a mother as one of her inspirations for running.
“I see kids are growing up in this region without the school funding they need, and then when they do grow up it’s hard to find a job,” she said. “People are leaving to find a bright future, but I want our kids to want to stay here. I think it’s the greatest place in the world, and I want to make sure people can afford to live here.”
O’Mara was elected to the state senate in November 2010, and describes himself as an advocate to improve the state’s business climate and is a strong advocate for the manufacturing industry. He’s also against “large, over-burdensome government,” and wants to fight to reduce property taxes. Similarly, fatherhood plays a part in his inspiration as a senator too.
“I have three college-aged kids, and I want to make sure they have the opportunity to have a life here,” he said.
In an interview with the Ithaca Times, both candidates tackled some of today’s most pressing issues, such as rebounding economically from the pandemic, police reform and funding, high taxes, and health insurance.
Danks Burke points to helping small businesses as the thing that will help the economy bounce back from the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken.
“Small businesses are most of the employment sector,” she said. “We need to cut the red tape that holds them back, cut property taxes and create real tax relief for businesses below a certain size.”
She suggested providing a tax holiday for businesses with more than a 25% revenue loss due to the pandemic and any non-chain restaurants, requiring insurance corporations to provide business interruption payments for their insured, and requiring municipal contractors to use New York State businesses first.
“There are so many things we can do and nobody’s doing anything about it,” she said.
O’Mara is on the same page, agreeing that the state needs to start helping small businesses. He believes it could be beneficial to provide low- or no-interest loans to small businesses to keep them afloat. He also suggested tax abatements for a period of time until they get back on their feet.
“Most of these small businesses that are struggling have too much debt already,” he said. “We need to be creative.”
O’Mara is a long-time advocate for manufacturing and was an integral part of removing the corporate franchise tax for corporate manufacturers. He said more work needs to be done to ensure manufacturers can be successful in this area.
“I’m a firm believer that manufacturing should be the prime focus of economic development to turn new innovations into manufacturing entities,” he said. “It will foster a variety of small businesses to support. We still have a decent manufacturing base in the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier, but it’s not what it was 40 years ago. The pandemic has shown we need greater reliance on manufacturing.”
Police reform and funding
The candidates find common ground when it comes to police funding; neither believe funding should be taken away from police departments but agree that other social services need more funding.
Danks Burke said that mental health and education services are not receiving the funding they’ve been promised, and that law enforcement is being asked to do jobs that they’re not trained to do.
“No wonder it’s all falling apart,” she said. “We need funding into education, mental health and social services. We pay more taxes than any other state, so where’s it all going?”
She added that from conversations she’s had with police officers, she believes the only way to solve the problem is if all the voices are at the table.
“We cannot make decisions about Black and brown citizens without their voices,” she said. “We cannot make changes to law enforcement supports without their voices.”
O’Mara said that while it was clear that what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis was “inappropriate and criminal behavior,” we have to be careful about attacking police departments as a whole.
“It’s beneficial to have police out in a more casual way to build relationships,” he said. “Individuals living in high-crime areas don’t like the crime either. And I’m seeing push-back from those people saying ‘we don’t want less police, we want them here protecting us.’”
O’Mara also echoed Danks Burke’s call for more funding to social services, adding that there is a lack of services particularly for mental health and drug addiction issues.
“State leadership has been reducing the state’s mental health facilities. They tried to close the Elmira Psychiatric Center, and that’s been tried half-a-dozen times over the past 20 years,” he said. “But those non-profits have not been supported enough to grow to handle this level of mental health and drug addiction issues.”
He also added that police officers could likely benefit from better training for dealing with people who have drug addictions or mental illness to ensure they’re able to de-escalate and defuse situations.
“[Police] aren’t social workers, so it would be great to have more mental health services available, even at the call of the police,” O’Mara said. “A lot of times police are the first to arrive and they don’t know what they’re walking into.”
According to the Tax Foundation, New York has the highest individual tax burden in the country at 12.7%, a fact nobody is particularly proud of.
Danks Burke said the first thing she would do if elected is introduce a bill to cut property taxes by 50% by taking Medicaid off the property tax base, “like the other 49 states.” She added that the real divide in the state is not between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives, it’s “between people who get away with paying nothing in property taxes,” and those who do pay them.
“None of them live around here, and they’re propped up by our exorbitant tax costs,” she said. “Regardless of where people live, they’re subsidizing people at the tippy top, and those folks have bought and paid for politicians to make sure it stays that way.”
She said the solution is to band together working and middle class people and understand that the system is “rigged against us.”
O’Mara said that there’s a cap of 2% on property tax increases, which he claims is an effective way to stem the growth of property taxes. Reducing property taxes, however, is very difficult, he said.
“Our local governments are already at bare bones,” O’Mara said.
He suggested a better way to reduce taxes is to reduce the number of unfunded mandates that local governments are required to find money for.
“While many may have merit for being required, the state shouldn’t be enforcing these mandates without following through with funding,” O’Mara said. “As those mandates become relieved, local entities can reduce their taxes over time.”
Danks Burke has made no secret of her distaste for Medicaid over the course of her campaign.
“The Medicaid program is bloated and not serving the people it should,” she said. “Right now it’s a way to funnel tax dollars from our pockets to big huge corporations instead.”
She believes a single-payer system would be more cost-efficient for New Yorkers.
“Medicaid is a nice idea, but there are 20 corporations that contract with the state Medicaid program to provide healthcare,” she said. “Some are for-profit and some are not, but you have 20 different companies making money off the state. They did an audit last December that found close to a billion dollars could be saved if we removed a for-profit skim from the Medicaid budget. That’s just one budget line.”
While O’Mara agrees that the cost of Medicaid is a burden and shouldn’t be funded through property taxes, he doesn’t agree a single-payer system is the answer.
“I do not support the single-payer system that others are promoting,” he said. “It’s very well understood to cost in excess of $200 billion, and that’s going to come in the way of increased payroll taxes and other income taxes to pay for that. Our total state budget right now is $176 billion, so then $200 billion plus on top of that would have dire consequences. Plus, taking away everyone’s health insurance that they have right now and put it into a government-run single payer system? I don’t believe that’s what the majority of New Yorkers want.”
The real problem in healthcare, O’Mara said, is the one million people who fall into the gap between not being able to afford insurance and not being eligible for Medicaid.
“Our focus needs to be there,” he said. “We need to find a way to get those people covered.”
He added that the state has been expanding its parameters for who is eligible for Medicaid, and the gap has been slowly closing, but that we need to continue to move in that direction.
“We’re talking about the working poor,” he said. “We need to incentivize employers to provide some type of healthcare for employees.”
He said that he had been trying to figure out how the state could do a sliding scale for those in the gap, rather than “falling off the Medicaid cliff.”
“There should be a graduated let-down from that as your income level increases, so you can earn more without the detriment of losing Medicaid,” he said.