In an effort to be more accessable to contituents, Assemblyman Steve Hawley held his first "Telephone Town Hall" this evening and promised more to come.
The hour-long "free and convenient" format allowed the 133,000 residents of the 139th Assembly District the chance to sit in an easy chair, put the phone on speaker mode, or not, and hear dialogue about voters' concerns or ask a question of their representative.
Before taking calls, Hawley mentioned current issues he's most passionate about -- job creation, equitable funding for Upstate education, support for veterans' causes, and repeal of the SAFE (Secure Ammunitions and Firearms Enforcement) Act, as well as finding out how voters feel about dividing the state in two (saying the newly configured entities could be called "New York and New Yawk").
He spoke a lot about the recently enacted SAFE Act, though he acknowleged getting it completely repealed is an uphill battle. Hawley said he's appalled that no time or effort was put forth to allow legislators to read the bill or weigh in on it. It was signed by the governor less than five minutes after being passed by both chambers of the state legislature. Hawley vehemently opposed it, has introduced a bill to repeal it, and maintains that it does nothing to increase public safety.
At 6:44, the first questioner, Doug, asked why the purported "commonsense governor" -- so horrified by the use of assault weapons -- would entertain Hollywood's request for an amendment to the SAFE Act that would allow filmmakers to use replicas of assault weapons while creating movies and video games in New York. Hawley simply replied that the entire SAFE Act needs to be eliminated.
Carol asked about controversial hydro-fracking and whether there's any legislation pending regarding it. Hawley replied that he's not aware of any, but said the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Health Department are currently studying the issue.
Hawley noted that "fracking" to extract oil from rock shale has been done in New York, particularly the Southern Tier, for roughly 80 years, but not hydro-fracking. The Southern Tier "has suffered significant economic doldrums, like the rest of Upstate, and I will withhold my opinion (on hydro-fracking) until the studies are out."
Next, Hawley proudly mentioned the bipartisan effort that resulted in restoring $90 million in proposed funding cuts for programs to aid the developmentally disabled.
Then a guy named Steve, of Orleans County, who said his county is probably the poorest one in Upstate New York, wanted to know why a disabled, wheelchair-bound citizen like himself can't get into many businesses to buy their goods. His questions to the proprietors result in "blank stares" and they claim to "know nothing" about accessibility for the disabled.
Hawley suggested he contact his local elected officials for help, including two staffers -- "Jaylene or Eileen" -- from his office.
Another caller asked about the steady gravy train of benefits offered by New York to those who flock here to take advantage of the system.
The Assemblyman acknowleged that New York is the most "benefit-rich" state in the Union, surpassing not only every state individually, but even California, Texas and North Carolina combined -- shelling out $90 billion a year in benefits. It is that reason many people flock here, the Assemblyman said, not jobs or family reasons.
This is one incentive for introducing legislation strengthening proof of residence requirements and mandating drug and alcohol testing for applicants, Hawley said. The proposal will be on the November ballot.
"The problem is that Downstate has a problem with reining in public-assistance spending," Hawley said.
Dorothy asked about casino gambling and Hawley said he voted against a proposal to expand gambling but favors a bill asking voters this November whether to allow three or four casinos Upstate, east of Route 14 (no specific geography cited).
Caller John said he has dim hope that slicing the state in half will ever happen, but wanted to know how Downstate can be made to hear and help resolve problems Upstate.
As far as splitting up New York, Hawley acknowledged it's a longshot, but said "there's more and more talk about it." (C'mon -- even Staten Island doesn't want to be considered a burrough of NYC anymore.) In a nutshell, the people Downstate live vertically and rent, we live horizontally and own homes, have grass, and more land -- they don't understand us, and how their tax-and-spend "solutions" are anything but.
Still, Hawley emphasized the need to stay engaged and keep working for resolutions with a view of the world where the "glass is always half full."
Asked about the utility tax, Hawley said he was very disappointed that the tax increase, set to expire in March 2014, has been extended by the Governor for another four years, costing taxpayers billions.
Rhonda, in Albion, asked about the plethora of abandoned houses there and complained that efforts to fix them up end up being a tax burden on the citizens of Albion. Hawley offered only that she try and work with local code enforcement officers to resolve issues.
Next, Hawley decried the ever-present burden of unfunded mandates -- noting that the biggest one is Medicaid -- and the Feds pay 50 percent of bill, the State pays 25 percent, and local government is responsible for the remaining 25 percent but is not reimbursed. That escalates the cost of doing business here.
Governor Cuomo's promises to reduce unfunded mandates have been empty ones, Hawley said.
The session ended with Hawley promising more Telephone Town Halls, saying they are helpful to him and to citizens and they increase accessiblity and transparency in government.