On Jan. 26, recently elected New York State Senator Democrat James Skoufis spoke with Vision Times to discuss his priorities going into 2023.
Skoufis, who now represents District 42 in the NYS Senate, previously served in the State Assembly representing District 99. The Senator squeaked out a win in last year’s midterm elections, beating his opponent, Republican Dorey Houle, by just 1,170 votes or 0.6 percent of the total vote.
Skoufis believes that government needs to “get back to the basics,” paving roads, supporting hospitals and schools, keeping the streets safe and cutting taxes and admitted that controversial bail reform laws need to be addressed.
Bail reform and mental health
“We need to fix bail reform and make some common sense changes to ensure that our police and our courts and our prosecutors have the tools to best keep our community safe,” Skoufis said.
In recent years, particularly after bail reform laws were passed in 2018 and implemented in 2020, crime has surged across the state.
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Skoufis believes that changes to bail reform are not the primary culprits responsible for the surge, calling it “a complicated issue” given that crime is up in all 50 U.S. states despite only New York having amended its bail laws.
“There are a lot of Democrats who are very unhappy with me in Albany because of my position on bail reform and public safety,“ Skoufis said, adding that “It’s a complicated issue and I know many people in politics try to simplify complicated issues to score political points.”
He did add that “our judges and our courts need some more discretion to be able to detain someone, pre-trial, if that person might be a risk to send back out into the community,” adding that the authorities should invest more on mental healthcare.
“Part of that is more funding. Part of that is more psychiatric beds. Part of that is hiring more professionals,” he said, adding that, “part of that is giving tools to our police to be able to commit a mentally ill person who is out on the street and stop them from doing things.”
On Jan. 10, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), announced during her State of the State address that her administration is implementing a “transformational plan to strengthen mental health care, increase capacity for inpatient psychiatric treatment by 1,000 beds and add 3,500 housing units serving individuals with mental illness.”
Hochul announced funding of upwards of $1 billion to implement “critical policy changes [and] to finally and fully meet the mental health needs of our state.”
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Cracking down on corporate welfare
Top of mind for Skoufis is cracking down on what he calls “corporate welfare.”
“Good economic development is attracting businesses, using tools, including incentives, to create jobs and opportunities,” he said, adding that “Corporate welfare is giving away tax dollars for no good reason and here in Orange County that happens all too often and you’ll be hearing more from me about that and potential solutions and efforts, initiatives, from my office to make sure that taxpayers are better protected.”
Skoufis said that out of 63 state senators he “passed the most bills each year” and has the “most independent voting record.
“Out of all the Democrats in the state senate, I have the most independent voting record. I’ve broken with my party the most number of times on votes. And so, that’s what my district can continue to expect from me. Hard work, independence and doing my best to deliver for them,” he said.
New York currently has a relatively low unemployment rate, hovering around 5.8 percent in recent months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While this is a good thing, Skoufis pointed out that low unemployment rates come with a different set of challenges for businesses.
“We have historically low unemployment rates, which typically is a good thing. You don’t want high unemployment. But, when you have low unemployment that means the pool of people who are not working is smaller,” Skoufis explained.
To combat this issue Skoufis says the state needs to create an environment that is more affordable for people to live in and address the amount of people who are fleeing the state for more affordable parts of the country.
According to Skoufis, there are two demographics that are fleeing the state, young professionals and retirees.
“For younger people, college graduates, people in their 20s, early 30s we have to address the quality of life deficiencies that exist here in Orange County and that’s a lot of areas,” he said, adding that Orange County needs to focus on better transportation into New York City. “We don’t even have a train into NYC. We’ve gotta take a train to Secaucus and then from Secaucus you can get to NYC.”
Providing more diverse opportunities for employment is one way Skoufis believes the problem can be tackled.
“One of the shortcomings of our economic development officials here in Orange County is that they seem way too focused on just a couple of different sectors of industry,” he said, adding that those sectors are the warehousing and healthcare industries.
“We do very little work in technology. We do very little work in finance. We do very little work in so many different sectors and industries,” he said and if the state wants young college graduates to remain in the state, government needs to do a better job of attracting the sort of jobs that these young professionals are looking for.
For retirees, Skoufis says the state needs to find a way to lessen their tax burden, telling Vision Times that retirees “are disproportionately crushed by the high taxes that exist” in the state.
Skoufis pointed out that while the cost-of-living may be higher in New York State compared to other states, salaries in New York are higher for a variety of occupations.
“You’re a plumber, you’re a teacher, you’re a reporter, you’re a tradesperson in construction, whatever it is, almost every single profession you make more here than you do in South Carolina,” he said, adding that “The teachers in New York make more money than the teachers in Mississippi. The plumbers in New York make more than the plumbers in Florida. The construction men and women in New York make more than the construction men and women in Georgia. It’s just a fact. And so … yes the cost-of-living is higher here but you’re making more money.”
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“I’m the type of representative that has always made a significant effort to represent everybody,” Skoufis said while explaining that following the recent redistricting of his district that half of his district is now new to him.
“This district voted for Lee Zeldin by 13 percent, yet I won as a Democrat … That tells you, you have a lot of people, thousands of people, who voted for Lee Zeldin and James Skoufis. And, I take that to heart.”
He said he could not have won had he not received support from both Democrats and Republicans.
I win these races with a lot of Republicans who crossover and support me, and I think that’s representative of the fact that I am not some idealog,” he said, adding that, “I am not a super left person.”
For people who did not vote for him, Skoufis says he will be working hard over the next two years to gain their trust.
“I want to work to earn their trust and I am going to spend the next two years working very hard to demonstrate to them what kind of representative I am, and work to earn their trust so that hopefully in two years they will reconsider and support me,” Skoufis said.