When Peter Harckham arrived in Albany in early January to take his 40th state Senate District seat for the first time as part of a new Democratic majority, he knew things would be different.
The Democrats had promised sweeping changes, including election reform, passing additional gun safety measures that extends background checks and enacting a safe storage and approving the Reproductive Health Act to codify a woman’s right to an abortion as part of the state’s health law rather than the criminal code.
For better or worse, changes began happening this session not at a glacial pace but at warp speed.
“We kind of threw that tradition on its ear this year and right out of the gate we started passing important legislation, things that have been bottled up,” Harckham said. “We talked about in the campaign, the first three months it was going to be the red flag bill, the Reproductive Health Act and the Child Victims Act. That was done in the first two months.”
In the ensuing weeks, there was a still wider assortment of approved legislation from prohibiting single-use plastic bags, to banning conversion therapy, passing the online sales tax and making the 2 percent tax cap permanent.
Harckham said he and his Democratic colleagues got the session off to a quick start with Election reform. Not only do the dates of potential primaries align with the federal election calendar but more people are now encouraged to vote by making absentee ballots as-of-right and by introducing early voting, so if someone is busy or sick on Election Day they don’t miss out on the chance to vote.
It was no accident that election reform was the first significant order of business that was tackled, he said.
“We wanted to send that message that in order to fix everything else, we had to fix our democracy,” Harckham said.
While there was not enough time during the first three months of the session to change the education formula, the legislature included about another $1 billion in state aid, Harckham said. The districts that saw the biggest bump were those that were at less than 50 percent of foundation aid, had growing enrollment and a large contingent of English Language Learners.
In the area, Ossining will be receiving an additional $3 million in 2019-20, Peekskill will see a $2.4 million increase and Brewster about $1 million more, Harckham said.
For Bedford, which has the extremes of wealth in certain parts of the district and a large immigrant population in parts of the district, there was an additional $400,000 made available. There was legislation that also allowed Bedford to have an insurance reserve even if they are self-insured and districts are now allowed to set up a pension reserve in case pension costs escalate beyond estimates.
Harckham said that he supported making the 2 percent tax cap permanent despite complaints.
“The complaints came from Town Board members and school board members, not from taxpayers,” he said. “Taxpayers overwhelming support the tax cap because we have to have some predictability in people’s lives, especially with the loss of SALT.”
Restoration of the full Aid and Incentives for Municipalities (AIM) funding, Harckham said, was done, which for some municipalities represents up to 1 percent on the taxes, or about half the annual allowable cap space.
As chair of the Senate’s Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Committee, Harckham pressed for and was successful in seeing an extension for inpatient or outpatient substance abuse treatment from 14 to 28 days before insurance companies can do a review.
One of the major issues of the session, the potential legalization of recreational marijuana, has not been resolved. Harckham said that there has been an avalanche of concerns from parents’ groups, school officials and police involving a potential increase in risky behaviors, issues that must be resolved before he would support legalization.
Since there would be an entire new industry established, he said it will likely be about two years from the time any legislation might be approved until it goes into effect.
“First, you’re setting up this new agency like the Bureau of Cannabis, or something like that, and then they have to select first the growers, then they have to select the distributors and then there’s also the debate of who are the growers, who are the sellers,” Harckham said. “You don’t want them to be one and the same, you don’t want to get big tobacco involved.”
Harckham said the pending shutdown of Indian Point is weighing heavily in Cortlandt and Buchanan. There is currently about $69 million in a cessation fund that the affected jurisdictions will be able to tap into to ease the burden once. He also supports a proposal from Assemblywoman Sandy Galef, which includes the spent fuel rods in the assessment of the property because of the unlikelihood of economic redevelopment.
While it was no secret that Gov. Andrew Cuomo appealed to Harckham to run for the seat last year, the senator addressed questions about whether he exhibits independence from the executive branch.
“As a legislator, you need to support your conference and your leadership, Harckham explained. “When the governor went to meet with Senate leadership over Amazon, I stuck with my leadership and I stuck with my colleagues in the Senate because that’s what good colleagues do for each other. We have centrist members of our conference and we have incredibly progressive members of our conference. I get along with all of them. I work well with everybody.”
He said that some of his fellow new colleagues have tested the tried and true ways of Albany but their fresh perspectives have helped to get things done.
“I think it’s good that some of the young, more progressive members of the Senate conference are pushing the envelope on how we do business and openness and democracy,” Harckham said. “I think that’s a good thing. It may ruffle some of the old-timers’ feathers. That’s what representative democracy is all about. Everybody brings their own skills and attitude. I just enjoy working with everybody.”