ELMIRA, N.Y. — Incumbent State Senator Tom O’Mara met Democratic challenger Leslie Danks Burke in their first debate of the 2020 election, which aired on Wednesday night on WETM.

The pre-recorded half-hour debate was hosted by veteran newscaster WETM Zach Wheeler. Candidates were allowed a two-minute opening statement each, followed by questions, which are allowed two-minute responses. The other candidate then got a 30-second rebuttal. Two-minute closing statements finished out the evening. Readers can watch the debate in its entirety here.

Leslie Danks Burke, as she has throughout her campaign, hit Sen. O’Mara on his career in the Assembly and then Senate stretching back to 2005. She pointed to the state’s high taxes, falling population and onerous unfunded mandates handed down by lawmakers in Albany. While Sen. O’Mara is a Republican in a deeply blue state, his party controlled the state’s upper chamber until Democrats flipped it in their favor in November of 2018.

“As senator, I’ll work to end Albany’s unfunded mandates, the Medicaid-for-profit scheme that drives up our property taxes. I’ll lead the fight to stop subsidizing the folks that don’t pay what the rest of us do — the corporate billionaires. And I’ll push in to the room to get our rightful seat at the table,” said Danks Burke in her opening statement. “We have serious problems and we need serious leadership. As your state senator, I’ll have one job: working for the people of the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes.”

Sen. O’Mara said his reason for seeking another term in office has been made even clearer as we all cope with a global pandemic.

“We’ve been working together to provide help and to do our very best to keep moving forward and find solid ground again,” O’Mara said in his opening statement. “Our legislative offices have become command centers, helping people through the unemployment problems, the health problems that we’ve had in our communities. The outreach from the public has been amazing. Your input to me and my work has been critically helpful throughout this pandemic and I want to thank everyone for working with me and together to get through this. And working together, we will find solid ground again.”

The questions kicked off with candidates giving their take on the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Danks Burke said that as a country, the United States was unprepared for the pandemic and that the state did OK given the lack of planning.

“We did well enough given the circumstances we were in, but we should have prepared more and that’s on the legislators and politicians that were in office and should have protected us,” said Danks Burke.

O’Mara, who has been a frequent critic of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s response to the pandemic, especially in nursing homes, did not entirely disagree that the state’s response went well — crediting Cuomo for his response, at least at the outset. But says that in the end, the response was not enough.

“(Cuomo) did, I think a very good job in the first month, month and a half, keeping the public apprised of what was going on, of the numbers, what we were trying to do with flattening the curve. And think that then he got carried away with the situation and these daily briefings,” said O’Mara. “In the end, as we stand right now, New York State, which has only 6 percent of the population of the United States, has 20 percent of the fatalities in the United States.”

As politics often does, discussions of the pandemic’s impact spilled into a discussion of the state’s finances.

Even before the pandemic upended budgets at every level of government, New York state was staring down a $6 billion budget shortfall. That gap is now estimated to be roughly $13.3 billion. Progressives in both houses of the legislature have suggested increasing taxes on billionaires who call the state home to close that gap. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has resisted the idea, presumably because, as Sen. O’Mara points out, if the billionaires take flight and leave New York, it could have the opposite outcome — actually increasing the budget gap.

O’Mara says that raising taxes is not the answer to closing the deficit. He says that controlling state spending is key to lowering the tax burden for average New Yorkers.

“For every one of the wealthy earners…every one that leaves, it’ll take close to $100,000 of people like you and I to make up that tax revenue,” said O’Mara. “What we should be looking at doing is closing loopholes for individuals to dodge some of these taxes, so we can recoup and gain the revenues from appropriate taxation and not over-taxation, which has been the history of New York state.”

Danks Burke said that O’Mara has repeatedly approved of New York’s tax structure that she says favors “New York City billionaires.” And said she agrees that the state should be closing loopholes used to dodge taxes, but wondered why he hasn’t acted during his time in the state government.

“I agree that we should be closing loopholes, Sen. O’Mara has been there for almost 15 years, he could have introduced or pushed through legislation at any point to close loopholes like the carried interest loophole, put in place taxes on second homes in wealthy Manhattan…those are the sorts of loopholes that we should be closing that would not affect people here in this district at all and that would have the effect of cutting our taxes here at home.”

Candidates then sparred over education funding, as schools across the state face budget cuts as uncertainty remains around state funding for schools. Schools have face the prospect of reopening, which in itself can become costly, with the potential of a 20 percent reduction in state aid looming. Danks Burke argued that state foundation aid, as it is called, as a bargaining chip is nothing new and that New York has a long history of underfunding or inequitably funding public schools. O’Mara disagreed that finances are the issue, pointing to New York’s highest in the nation expenditures per pupil, with the state spending more than $23,000 per pupil annually.

The candidates found themselves far apart on marijuana legalization, with Sen. O’Mara saying the discussion surrounding legalization being driven by its tax revenue potential rather than public health. Gov. Cuomo has long been an opponent of legalization — frequently referring to it as a “gateway drug.” O’Mara did however cede that marijuana legalization is not the end of the world, but added that problems with testing in workplaces and on roadways presents a problem.

Danks Burke agreed that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was legalized. She says that it could be done in a way that addresses issues around policing of marijuana and disproportionate impact it has on communities of color. She also added that if New York does legalize marijuana, which at this point seems like an inevitability with bordering states already moving to legalize, that New York farmers, and not corporate conglomerates, have the first shot at the economic boon that legalization would generate.

The conversation then turned to bail reform, sort of.

The question was posed, after the killing of an 11 year old in Troy, NY, if candidates would agree to amending state statute, raising drive by shootings to a first degree murder charge.

Sen. O’Mara, wrongly, said that the offender in that case was freed because of bail reform. This Times-Union investigation found that not to be the truth. The suspect was released because the prosecutor failed to secure an indictment in the 45 day time frame required.

Danks Burke said she supported the reforms, because bail disproportionately impacts people of less means, making it punitive. She stirred up Sen. O’Mara by pointing to a campaign expense of O’Mara’s she said was a retainer for an attorney that represented him in a dispute between a number of legislators and the state after a commission approved pay raises for legislators but limited outside income. The New York state legislature is (somehow) a part-time job and Sen. O’Mara works as an attorney (which itself has raised questions). The pay raise would have limited his ability to do so.

This half-hour debate is followed on Thursday evening (TONIGHT!) with a debate and town hall between Sen. O’Mara and Danks Burke hosted by Cornell Institute of Politics and Global affairs. Those interested in tuning in can find details and register for the webinar here. The debate will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

Featured Image: Sen. Tom O’Mara and Leslie Danks Burke debate in 2016.