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Campaign finance and education top lists of north country state representatives heading into 2014


Ahead of the 2014 legislative session, north country representatives are preparing and refining their goals and sharing their prognostications for the upcoming year.

Infrastructure repair, education reform and mandate relief top the list of priorities for Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton.

There is some disagreement among the three when it comes to public campaign financing, however.

Public financing of campaigns was recommended in a preliminary report from the Commission to Investigate Public Corruption, which was appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in July under the 1907 Moreland Act and is expected to form a cornerstone of the governor’s anti-corruption initiative.

“I’m sure he’s going to want to do something with campaign finance reform,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

And while neither Mr. Blankenbush nor Sen. Ritchie is in favor of the measure, Mrs. Russell said it would bring equality to state elections.

“It would go a long way toward leveling the playing field. The average middle class person ought to have the ability to get into politics,” said Mrs. Russell, who has supported public campaign financing in the past.

But Mr. Blankenbush is skeptical about the willingness of taxpayers to foot the bill for an initiative that he said would have a questionable effect on corruption in the state capital.

“I’m not sure taxpayers in the state of New York want to fund everyone’s campaign,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

A similar initiative that has been in place in New York City for about 10 years has yielded 26 cases of campaign fraud, according to Mr. Blankenbush.

Instead, he is advocating for four-year terms for members of the Assembly and term limits that would regulate how long those members could serve.

“You can’t be sitting there over twenty years, raising a lot of money because of being an incumbent,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “Three terms and you’re out.”

And for Sen. Ritchie, who, like her colleagues, is pushing for additional funding for education, the question of public campaign finance boils down to a question of priorities.

“I don’t believe we have the resources to put into campaigns rather than our schools,” Mrs. Ritchie said.

All three representatives found fault with the state’s rollout of the Common Core initiative, which is intended to standardize curricula across the country and make students more competitive with those from other countries.

But representatives said the state has pushed too hard too fast with the implementation of the program and they are asking for additional time for teachers and students to adjust to the more rigorous standards.

“I’ve talked to many teachers, superintendents and parents,” Mrs. Ritchie said. “The information is great; we have to be able to compete, but we shouldn’t be testing students on information they’re just learning about.”

Much of the controversy over the Common Core rollout has centered on testing students at the higher standards even as the new curriculum has not yet been fully implemented.

More than 70 percent of north country students from third grade to eighth grade were not proficient in math or English language arts, according to tests given in the spring.

“I think the goal of increasing our standards is long overdue, but the state Education Department’s implementation has been a failure,” Mrs. Russell said. “There are gaps in the material that our children are being presented and they are taking tests on material they haven’t been taught. This needs to be completely re-evaluated and pushed out for at least two years instead of undermining their confidence and ability to learn.”

Mr. Blankenbush also said that he was in favor of a gradual implementation of the Common Core.

“It should be a two- or three-year period so we can gradually get into it,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

The three representatives also said that mandate relief and infrastructure repair were high on their priorities list.

“When the county’s budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 percent state mandates, we need to work on that,” Mr. Blankenbush said.

According to Jefferson County’s 2014 adopted budget, more than 80 percent of the property tax levy is consumed by state-mandated programs.

As the three representatives look ahead to the start of the 2014 legislative session, an issue from last year’s session lingers.

The NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Act of 2013 was passed at the very beginning of the legislative calendar. It became a very unpopular law in the north country, and opposition to its regulations is still strong, according to Mr. Blankenbush.

Though a repeal of the law is unlikely at this time, Mr. Blankenbush said he believes the issue will play an important role in the 2014 election season.

Mr. Blankenbush and Sen. Ritchie both voted against the legislation, which expanded the state’s gun control laws, while Mrs. Russell voted for it.

Mrs. Russell has defended her vote, saying there were a number of components of the SAFE Act that deserved her support, including closing loopholes in background checks, stiffening penalties for those who make straw purchases for people not permitted to own firearms, and increasing penalties for killing first-responders.

Mrs. Russell said she supported the bill as a compromise and has been vocal in addressing its shortcomings.

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