Friday, April 04, 2008

For Those Who Missed Senator Skelos' Virtual Town Hall Meeting

Here's The Trasnscript

The Dean of the New York State Senate, Dean Skelos, held a virtual town hall meeting -- sans the town, and without the hall -- today.

It was, by all acounts, a tremendous success.

The proposed -- and still pending -- 2008-09 State Budget was on the table (or should we say, "in the chat room?") for discussion, and as many questions as could be fielded during the hour were taken and responded to by Senator Skelos in an open and frank manner.

We hope that the Senator holds similar online forums going forward, and we encourage all readers of this blog to take note and participate.

To join the e-mail list maintained by Senator Dean Skelos, and to be informed of events such as virtual town hall meetings, click HERE. [Open to residents of the 9th Senate District only.]

Remember, good government is not a spectator sport!
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Virtual Question & Answer Session with Senator Dean G. Skelos
The Virtual Q&A Session: 03:00 PM - 04:00 PM Friday, April 4
Session Transcript:

Moderator (Rockville Centre): Welcome to Senator Skelos' Virtual Town Hall meeting.

Senator Skelos (03:00 PM): I want to thank everyone who's logged on to my first virtual town hall meeting. With the budget negotiations ongoing, this is a great opportunity for me to answer questions you may have dealing with the budget and the budget process. I expected to be conducting this meeting from my office in Rockville Centre. Unfortunately, the budget process was delayed by Governor Spitzer's resignation and we're continuing to pass budget bills right now. This meeting is scheduled from 3 to 4 today. At some point during the meeting, I may need to go downstairs to the Senate Chamber to vote on more budget bills. If so, I will try to get back to everyone who submitted a question. And we'll do this again in the future. Let's get to the questions.

Frank (Island Park): Right now, it looks like the state is not going to be as generous to Long Island with state school aid again. School taxes are rising steadily each year and there seems to be no end in sight. There really is a need to combine school districts and resources, remove duplicated services and start to reduce the teacher workforce.

Senator Skelos (03:01 PM): This year, we've agreed on a state school aid increase of $1.8 billion. This is actually more than last year ($1.7 billion). As you may know, the budget proposals advanced by former Governor Spitzer and Governor Paterson would have cut Long Island's share of each increase by nearly 40%. Last year, I successfully fought to protect Long Island's fair share and I'm confident that I will be successful again this year. This year, I expect Long Island school districts to receive approximately $230 million in extra state school aid. The difference between the Governor's plan and our traditional 13% share translates into about $100 million for Long Island school districts.

George (Long Beach): What is the status of library aid? Has the $5 million [that was cut by in the Spitzer-Paterson budget proposal] for system aid been restored?

Senator Skelos (03:03 PM): The Senate's one-house budget restored the $5 million for libraries that was cut in the Spitzer-Paterson Executive Budget proposal. The Senate is fighting for this restoration in the ongoing budget negotiations, but we won't know the final outcome until the new state budget is completed.

Hazle (Rockville Centre): What budgetary provisions have been made to assist in the recruitment and retention of workforce for the health care industry as the long-term care program transitions clients from nursing homes to home settings?

Senator Skelos (03:06 PM): The Healthcare budget bill that passed the Senate and Assembly last Monday restored the Spitzer-Paterson budget plan's proposed health care cuts. This included $85 million more for nursing homes and $15 million in state funds for nursing home workforce recruitment and retention activities. It also rejects the Spitzer-Paterson plan to cut reimbursement rates for certified home health agencies and long-term home health care.

Anthony (Lynbrook): What is being done about the disgusting litter along the roads of Rockville Centre and Lynbrook? In particular, the easterly side of Ocean Avenue between Sunrise Highway and Lakeview Avenue and the feeder road Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road to Rockville Centre.

Senator Skelos (03:08 PM): Thanks for your question. I've contacted the villages of Rockville Centre and Lynbrook to asked the mayors to address this problem. They've indicated to me that they will be contacting their respective departments of public works and having them (1) investigate the situation and (2) modify their maintenance schedules accordingly.

Seth (West Hempstead): Not so much a question, Senator Skelos, as a ''thank you'' for opening up the budget process, in particular, and state government, in general, to the people of New York. We appreciate your efforts in serving your constituents faithfully and with their best interests always first in mind. Long Island, and the communities in which we live, work, and raise our families, are better places because of your dedication and hard work. Thank you!

Senator Skelos (03:10 PM): Seth, thanks for the kind words.

Hank (Lynbrook): What actions are you taking to rein in the cost of energy?

Senator Skelos (03:13 PM): While energy prices are generally set on the national and international market and regulated by the federal government in Washington, last summer I contacted Attorney General Andrew Cuomo asking that he investigate possible price gouging on Long Island. In addition, I have worked to expand the supply of energy and reduce demand through a new law I wrote expanding the use of solar power and legislation I've written providing a sales tax exemption for hybrid and other fuel efficient vehicles. By making hybrid vehicles more cost-effective and promoting the use of other gas conscious cars, we will begin dramatically reducing our gasoline consumption, easing the burden that higher fuel costs impose on household budgets.

Anne (Lynbrook): The state should have [a] tax cap or school board laws to [protect] the taxpayer. What can the state enforce to protect the taxpayer?

Senator Skelos (03:15 PM): Right now, County Executive Tom Suozzi is chairing a state commission responsible for proposing a plan to cut property taxes, such as a property tax cap. This report is expected in mid-May. While school district spending, including compensation packages for school district employees, are negotiated by the local school board, we've taken a number of steps to make school districts more accountable to taxpayers: one-day school budget voting, disclosure of administrative expenses prior to the budget vote and capping contingency budgets.

Dena (Valley Stream): How can the school districts get reimbursed by the practicing attorneys who were also working full time on numerous school boards and how can we end this practice?

Senator Skelos (03:19 PM): With local school property taxes spiraling out of control, homeowners have the right to expect that every penny spent by their school district is absolutely necessary to educate their children. The recent stories about the fraud and abuse that is being committed by attorneys double-billing school districts for legal services and collecting state pensions has shocked the collective conscience of property taxpayers. I have introduced legislation that clearly prohibits this practice and imposes penalties on those who engage in it. At the same time, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has launched an investigation into the matter and is moving to recoup the public funds that were used to compensate the individuals who committed this fraud.

Abbe (Baldwin): Please help to put a stop to building Broadwater in Long Island Sound. It is not only a bad idea it is dangerous.

Senator Skelos (03:22 PM): Working with my colleagues from Long Island, specifically Senator Carl Marcellino who chairs the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee and Senator Ken Lavalle, we've expressed our united opposition to the Broadwater project. Clearly, Long Island needs additional energy, but we can't jeopardize our environment or the safety of local residents.

B.A. (Baldwin): What's the status of your proposal for the state hiring new teachers? It sounded interesting when you first floated the idea, but I haven't heard much since.

Senator Skelos (03:25 PM): After I raised the idea in a speech I gave to the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce, I held several meetings with school district officials, the teachers' union and education finance experts. I'm exploring ways to implement the concept and I know it's been submitted to County Executive Suozzi's property tax reform commission for their consideration. Because school taxes constitute the vast majority of our overall property tax bill, we must continue working on new ways to ease the burden.

Bob and Sue (Baldwin): [Parking is a] major problem for store owners on Grand Avenue. [We] need a police scooter to enforce one hour parking and [the] town to put up signs showing where municipal parking lots are [located]

Senator Skelos (03:28 PM): Parking enforcement is an issue for the Town of Hempstead and Nassau County. I'd be happy to meet with Town or County officials and work with the police departments to help ensure that they have the resources they need for additional equipment.

Rich (Rockville Centre): With the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, will the Senate have another opportunity to reallocate budget money to Long Island school districts?

Senator Skelos (03:28 PM): Despite former Governor Spitzer's best effort to cut Long Island's share of new state school aid last year from 13% to about 8%, Long Island's Senate Majority Delegation fought and won our fair share. This provided approximately $105 million more for school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties. This year, the Spitzer-Paterson budget proposal attempted to cut our share again. While the education budget bill has not yet been passed, I'm confident that our share will be protected again this year. This translates into roughly $230 million more state aid for Long Island schools.

John (Malverne): I am opposed to congestion pricing. Where do you stand?

Senator Skelos (03:30 PM): I am also opposed to congestion pricing and have already voted against it once in the State Senate. It's another form of a commuter tax and will place an unfair burden on middle-class Long Islanders who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Susan (Rockville Centre): Is there any possibility of profound relief for the exorbitant school taxes?

Senator Skelos (03:34 PM): Our rising school taxes are one of the reasons I fight so hard each year for our fair share of state school aid. Without this additional money from the state, our taxes would be even higher and the education that our children receive would suffer. Ten years ago, I helped create the School Tax Relief (''STAR'') program to lower our property tax bills. And to provide additional help, I led the fight against former Governor Spitzer's plan to impose unfair income limits and, as a result, exclude middle class Long Island families from the property tax rebate check program. In fact, this successful effort increased the income limit to receive the largest rebate checks by 50%. This year, the budget will provide $150 million to increase the size of these rebate checks. While this is a good start, crushing property taxes are making it more and more difficult to live on Long Island and we must do more. I'm looking forward to County Executive Suozzi's recommendations from the property tax reform commission in May. As I mentioned earlier, I will continue working on new ideas that would not just cap, but actually make significant cuts to our property tax bills.

Arthur (Cedarhurst): My wife and I are already facing financial difficulties here on Long Island due to [the] raising of property and school taxes. My daughter currently receives services during and after school to attend to her needs on the autistic spectrum. Will the new state budget impact the number of services that she currently receivesfor her continued education and therapies?

Senator Skelos (03:37 PM): This year, the state will provide an additional $1.8 billion in state school aid. This follows a $1.7 billion increase last year. I've also worked to eliminate the cuts for BOCES program that were proposed in both years by former Governor Spitzer and, now, Governor Paterson. Through these state aid increases, local school districts should have the flexibility they need to continue these services.

Jackson (Baldwin): What are you doing to bring sports betting to New York to raise revenue, reduce taxes, etc.?

Senator Skelos (03:39 PM): The state already generates substantial revenue through the lottery, video lottery terminals at racetracks and payments from casinos that operate on Native American land.

Stacy (Oceanside): How much, if any, of the budget is allocated to autism research and awareness?

Senator Skelos (03:43 PM): I have a close relationship with autism advocates from Long Island and we've worked together to pass new laws in the past. There is not one easy answer to your question. Autism research and awareness is conducted by a variety of state and federal agencies. I firmly support everything that we can do in this regard and I'll continue to work to provide the necessary funding for school districts to help autistic children and for the various involved state agencies to continue our autism programs.

Patricia (Rockville Centre): I read that seniors 75 and over who live in their own homes might get a bigger discount from school taxes. I am worried about my retirement fund getting smaller and smaller each month with the cost of living (gasoline, food, daily expenses) going sky high.

Senator Skelos (03:46 PM): Last year, Governor Spitzer refused to support the Senate Majority's plan to increase the size of the rebate checks that were mailed to Enhanced STAR eligible seniors. I was opposed to this limitation. Through this year's budget negotiations, I am working to correct this problem and provide substantially more property tax relief to seniors who are enrolled in the Enhanced STAR program. The Spitzer-Paterson budget this year would have increased the state sales tax on gasoline. In fact, it would have raised the price of gas by about 5% each year. During the budget negotiations, we have successfully rejected this proposed gas tax increase.

T. (West Hempstead): As a literacy tutor with Literacy Nassau, I am aware that the proposed ALE budget cuts will greatly affect this nonprofit organization. My thoughts are that literacy should be an Island-wide priority. Can you please take the time to briefly explain where the literacy issue fits in, in regards to the state's priorities.

Senator Skelos (03:49 PM): In the Senate one-house budget, we proposed restoring $2 million for Adult Literacy Education in response to the reductions included within the Spitzer-Paterson budget plan. As a long-time supporter of various literacy programs, I will continue working to restore this funding in the final state budget. Additionally, I plan on continuing to provide a special legislative grant to support the great work Literacy Nassau does in our county.

Denise (Oceanside): As the mother of three children in college, I am very concerned that they will leave Long Island after graduating due to high home prices. Is there anything the state can do help deal with our need for affordable housing?

Senator Skelos (03:52 PM): The quality of life that makes Long Island so special--great schools, our parks and beaches, tight-knit communities and our proximity to New York City--creates a tremendous demand for housing and places upward pressure on prices. This is an issue that public policymakers need to focus on since the ''next generation'' of Long Islanders--18 to 34 year-olds--are leaving the Island at an astounding rate. I've worked hard at the state level to make it easier for middle-class Long Islanders to afford a home. In 2006, I created the HELP Program, which provides qualified homebuyers who secure downpayment assistance from their employer with up to $40,000 in state grants toward the purchase of new or existing homes. Individuals earning up to $85,000 and families of four earning up to $121,000 may qualify. There are currently over 50 employers participating in HELP. To find out more information, you can call the Long Island Housing Partnership at (631) 435-4710 or visit their website at

Derek (Rockville Centre): My main concern is why do students have to take loans out to go to a State University or even a Community or City College? Those were designed to make education affordable and education is not. What will you do to make state and community college tuition more affordable?

Senator Skelos (03:55 PM): A college education is critically important and I believe that the state should take every step possible to ensure that tuition at our state colleges remains affordable. Several years ago, I was deeply involved in the enactment of the Senate's College Bound program. This program made college tuition tax deductible for every Long Island student, regardless of income or college choice. We also significantly expanded both the minimum and maximum grants and raised the income eligibility limit. This year, the Spitzer-Paterson budget proposal cut funding for the TAP program, but I anticipate that we will successfully restore this funding to the final budget.

Don (Valley Stream): Would you be interested in introducing a method of collecting school taxes that goes far in solving illegal rentals [and makes property taxes more affordable] for young homeowners and seniors and homeowners that do not have children attending district schools?

Senator Skelos (03:58 PM): A few years ago, I passed a new state law providing the Town of Hempstead with another tool to crack down on illegal rentals. In the past, the Town had difficulties serving legal process on landlords who permit over occupancy in their rental units. My ''nail and mail'' law addressed the problem by allowing the Town to start the legal process by tacking or taping the summons and complaint to the apartment building.

Moderator (Rockville Centre): Senator, we have run out of time for today.

Senator Skelos (03:59 PM): I thank everyone who participated in my first virtual town hall meeting. We had a tremendous response and more questions submitted than we had time to answer. I can't wait to do this again.

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