By Edie Johnson
A lively debate was deftly monitored by Orange County Chamber President Heather Bell-Meyer on Thursday evening at the SugarLoaf Performing Arts Center. The large and mostly well behaved audience heard responses to some tough questions. While the discourse was mostly civil, there were a few bursts of applause and one outburst that swiftly resulted in a warning by Bell-Meyer that police would escort the person out if it happened again.
The candidates (Dorey Houle - a current Councilwoman in the Town of Monroe (Republican/Conservative) and James Skoufis (Democrat Line), the current 2-term Senator for the new 42nd District which has been slightly modified to include most of Orange County.
Asked about their most proud professional accomplishments to date, both responded that it came down to benefits they had afforded families with small children. Houle described a school program she had instituted that involved students being able to participate in their own governance, while Skoufis detailed the benefits of making Pre-K programs available via the Senate bills he sponsored during his previous terms along with child care subsidies he is working on now, total- $200M. Houle said that so many subsidies would not be necessary if the overall cost of living was not so high. She added that parents should have more control over what their children study, and that the primary goal for education in local schools should be learning how to do critical thinking, and not exploring social norms.
While they agreed that college costs are too high, Skoufis said he would support SUNY and CUNY becoming tuition free. Houle said that college tuition is at least in part reflective of the problem of everything being too expensive because of current inflation, government overspending, and that another layer of governmental involvement wouldn't necessarily solve the problem since the public would still be paying for it. Both agreed that the high costs of living in New York, including both education and property taxes, have led to a great exodus of residents moving to southern states that have lower taxes . Skoufis said that tax reform is a high priority for him. He presented a solution of making all taxes tied to and proportionate to an individual's State Income Taxes, thus based primarily on income. This, he said, would result in no one having to pay more taxes than they can reasonably afford.
On crime - Houle presented her firsthand experience with increased crime in the state which she linked to failed bail reforms. She called it "DIsastrous" and said it is "killing New York", adding that "One of us up here has personal experience with its failure", since she has a husband who is a retired police officer and caused her to wonder every night whether he would come home safely. Skoufis spoke of the numerous state law enforcement groups that support him and have promised votes for him. Houle said she has law enforcement votes from "boots on the ground".
While statistically only 5% of New Yorkers have no health insurance, Houle emphasized that just because they have some kind of insurance does not mean it's affordable, and that especially in this economy many still have medical costs and co-pays that are so high they end up choosing between medicine, food, and electricity. Skoufis said he thinks the best solution at present is to expand Medicare and make it a Public Health Option. Houle questioned "Do we really trust the government to take control of our insurance?" Skoufis said he was quite sure that those who have no insurance would be glad to have a version of Medicare coverage.
Houle emphasized the need to support business, especially those small businesses that were hurt during the pandemic by the cost of their portion of unemployment payments despite having no control over the time and length of total shutdown. Skoufis agreed and said the Senate still plans to address the issue. Re. growing business in the County, he added that he thinks the IDA should develop a broader portfolio including more help for small business startups rather than adding a lot more warehouse type businesses. Houle pointed to the jobs the warehouses have provided. Skoufis pointed to a new PILOT in Goshen which he said includes "a ridiculous sum of almost a half million dollars per employee" in their calculations. As for the pandemic business shutdown issues, Houle blamed the democratic led state legislature for not standing up to Cuomo and Hochul when they shut everything down. Skoufis said that was simply not true, that they had fought, "and we keep fighting", adding "I work my heart out every day for my constituents."
While Skoufis touted the $25M commitment he got during this past session to finally tackle the bridge on 17M at the entrance to Chester, Houle criticized the temporary blacktopping that she said seemingly miraculously appeared before this election, and that is already starting to crumble. She added skeptically that promises have been made to fix it for many years . Skoufis responded "It's coming..this year..$25M."
About migrant children being flown into Orange County in secret and with no follow-up explanation by federal officials, no food or knowledge of destination, both agreed that the process was terrible, and the whole thing should have at least been transparent. Houle connected the problem to the lack of full border security and said it was appalling that families were torn apart. Both were disappointed that efforts in previous times to improve life in their country of origin so they would not need to seek asylum currently does not seem to be able to be negotiated.
On election validity - Both Skoufis and Houle agreed that residents in Orange County can be confident in the results of its elections.
As for making recreational marijuana available to New Yorkers, Skoufis said that retail alternatives should be available in December or January. He said he voted against the option of growing a limited amount at home, due to the likelihood that it would lead to blackmarket selling.
Houle said she thought the implementation process was not well thought out, especially re. potential impacts, and that the state should have done better planning. Skoufis responded that elements of the bill did not happen overnight and have in fact been looked at for a decade and that many bills need some adjusting. Houle responded "And we still got a crappy bill."
For anyone wanting to watch the entire debate, a video of the entire debate is available on the Orange County Chamber of Commerce website.