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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

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

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. 

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

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

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

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.”

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