ITHACA, NY – Discussion about unfunded mandates from the state and the SAFE Act were some of the major recurring questions during a debate between New York State Senate candidates: Republican incumbent Tom O’Mara and Democratic challenger Leslie Danks Burke.

O’Mara and Danks Burke are fighting for the 58th district state senate seat, a large district which includes several Southern Tier and Finger Lakes counties: Chemung, Schuyler, Steuben and Yates counties, and a portion of Tompkins County (the city and town of Ithaca, and the towns of Enfield, Newfield and Ulysses).

The debate, the first of four to be held in the region during coming week, was held Saturday morning at The Space at GreenStar. Questions were submitted by audience members and read by a moderator. The event was hosted by the Tompkins County League of Women Voters.

Several questions touched on similar issues, so we’ve grouped the candidates’ answers to a few questions together.

On unfunded mandates

Unfunded mandates are services that the state requires local municipalities to pay for, but the state does not provide any funding. This is an issue that has long been a frustration, particularly for county lawmakers.

By far the biggest of these mandates is Medicaid. In most states, Medicaid is paid half by federal funds and half by state funds — but in New York, about 17 percent of the state’s bill gets passed down to the local governments.

According to Danks Burke, if New York State paid it’s own Medicaid expenses like most states do, rather than pass the expense down to the county level, property taxes in Tompkins would drop by one-third instantly. By comparison, if that cost was shifted to the state level, it would only make up 1.5 percent of the state’s budget.

“It hurt the very people it’s supposed to protect,” said Danks Burke. “Medicaid is a program that’s supposed to help lower-income families get access to health care. But by pushing it down to the regressive, property tax level, we’re shortchanging our families and raising our taxes a third above what they should be.”

Both candidates were in agreement that unfunded mandates burdensome was unfairly burdensome. O’Mara says that he has sponsored legislation in the State Senate to phase out the $8 billion annual expense to local governments across the state brought on by Medicaid over seven years.

On gun control and the SAFE Act

Both O’Mara and Danks Burke said they opposed the SAFE Act, a controversial New York State gun control law that, among other things, led to stricter background checks and limited the amount of rounds that can be loaded into a gun’s magazine.

Danks Burke characterized the SAFE Act as a law that was rushed through the legislature in response to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, where a man fatally shot 20 schoolchildren and six adults.

O’Mara, similarly, described the SAFE Act as “knee-jerk legislation” that was rushed through and said he voted against it. O’Mara then shifted the conversation to the issue of mental health, criticizing the governor for attempting to shut down mental health centers at the same time he was pushing the SAFE Act through.

Danks Burke said that she had attempted to purchase a gun, as she wanted to understand the law and she found the process unnecessarily lengthy and onerous. Meanwhile, she said, a criminal could illegally obtain a gun easily. She also agreed with O’Mara that mental health was an issue.

Tom O’Mara talks with a local resident after the debate. (Michael Smith / The Ithaca Voice)
Tom O’Mara talks with a local resident after the debate. (Michael Smith / The Ithaca Voice)

Addressing gun control

As for how the candidates would address gun control, Danks Burke said she did support background checks, and said that many law-abiding gun owners are on the same page.

“What we need to do is eliminate this conflict so that we can get to the table together and discuss solutions that we all agree on,” Danks Burke said. “Just like you don’t exclude women when you’re talking about women’s health care, you don’t exclude gun owners when you’re talking about guns.”

O’Mara was critical of certain background check laws, particularly pointing toward the position held by many democrats that people on the no-fly list should not be able to buy guns, since there is no due process involved. O’Mara said that most illegal guns were coming from out of state, and that it was an issue that the federal government and other states should deal with.

On energy and climate change

“Climate change is a serious problem,” said Danks Burke. “We need to focus on it, and we need to focus on it now.”

She hit O’Mara on the fact that he has said it’s unclear how much impact human activity has had on climate change. She refuted that idea, pointing to this year’s drought as an example of the extreme weather created by climate change. For Danks Burke, the solution was a focus on bringing jobs in green energy like solar to the region.

O’Mara was in agreement that New York State should be a leader in energy innovation but advocated a more balanced approach of phasing in green energy including solar, wind and hydro while gradually phasing out fossil fuels.

“We have to do it with a realism that understands that we can’t just cut ourselves off from fossil fuels in the short term, as much as we would like to. We need a balanced approach to the future of our energy needs in this state,” O’Mara said.

He also pointed out that New York State is already a leader in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but said approximately 80 percent of our building heating is reliant on fossil fuels, and it’s unrealistic to completely cut fossil fuels out of the energy picture by 2030.

On campaign contributions

O’Mara said that he had no issue with businesses being able to contribute to campaigns, but supported regulations and disclosure that might prevent a person breaking the contribution limit by contributing both as an individual and as a business. He also opposed taxpayer money going to support campaigns.

O’Mara also argued that the current limit — $11,000 per individual — was too high, noting that no contributions to his campaign were higher than $5,000 while several of his opponent’s were maxed out at $11,000.

Danks Burke countered by saying that 85 percent of her campaign contributions came from individuals, while 65 percent of O’Mara’s came from PACs and downstate corporations. She also said that she refuses to use certain loopholes — even ones being used by Democrats in other races.

“We have to change the rules so that the things I am choosing to do to provide full disclosure and more transparency, are the law for everyone,” she said.

On single-payer health care

O’Mara said he did not support the measure and was critical of the Affordable Care Act (often called Obamacare). O’Mara’s logic was that the state had already proven it could not run it’s Medicaid program without burdening the taxpayers. Thus he felt until a better system was found on a national level, New York should not embark on its own program.

Danks Burke was supportive of the move toward single-payer, and said that New York should be a leader on this issue. She argued that a single-payer system free of the influence of big health care companies would be the best option.

Leslie Danks burke talks with a local resident after the debate. (Michael Smith / The Ithaca Voice)

On immigration

O’Mara pointed to New York’s strong agriculture sector and the fact that it is heavily reliant on migrant workers, and that needs to be supported. He also felt that reforms were needed to ensure that immigrants coming in were coming legally and appropriately. He noted, however, that immigration is a federal issue and there is little that can be changed at the state level.

Danks Burke said she supports a path to citizenship for immigrants. She echoed O’Maras sentiment about agriculture, saying that it is one of the only growth industries in the Southern Tier, and thus supporting a path to citizenship for people working in that sector had an opportunity to participate in the political system.

On the Child Victim Act

One question criticized O’Mara’s decision not to vote on the Child Victim Act, which would eliminate the statue of limitations for certain criminal or civil charges of child sex abuse and allow some cases to be revived.

O’Mara defended his position by saying that, as an attorney, he believed in the function and purpose of the statute of limitations. He also felt that the bill was unfairly targeted specifically at the Catholic Church. He pointed out that during his tenure, the State Senate did take action to extend the statute of limitations for criminal charges on sex abuse cases.

Danks Burke, herself a Catholic, said that the Catholic Church has an abuse problem that had to be recognized. Furthermore, she supported the legislation that would allow sexual abuse survivors older than age 23 to seek justice against their abusers.

On the 2016 presidential election candidates

“This presidential election is a disgrace on all sides as far as I’m concerned, the choices we have,” O’Mara said. “What either Leslie or I say on this shouldn’t have a bearing on who you choose in the presidential election. Frankly, with the leaks coming out day by day now, who knows what we’re going to be thinking about either one of them three weeks from now?”

Danks Burke’s agreed that their stance on the presidential election should have little bearing on how supporters feel about them. However, she did not hesitate to throw her full support behind the Democratic Hillary Clinton, calling her “the most qualified, most experienced candidate we have ever seen.”

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.