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Sen. Jim Gaughran

People at a rally in Old Bethpage held up signs signaling for a need for gun legislation. Photo by David Luces

Close to 200 people, including activists, survivors, faith leaders and elected officials filled a room at Haypath Park in Old Bethpage, Aug. 6, to call for common sense gun reform from Washington and to collectively voice ‘enough is enough’.

Moms Demand Action has been at the forefront of LI protests against gun violence. Photo by David Luces

The rally came in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that took 31 lives over last weekend.

“We are upset, heartbroken — and most importantly we are angry,” Tracy Bacher, of Moms Demand Action, an organization founded by a Dix Hills mother after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012.  “In less than 24 hours our nation experienced two major mass shootings, this a public health crisis that demands urgent action.”

NYS Senator Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) said it’s time for federal government to act on common-sense gun reform.

“We are calling for Washington to take action, we have passed a red-flag law in the state we believe it’s going to save lives,” the senator said in an interview. “But if they can pass one in Washington it will save a lot more lives. We need to get guns off the street that are in the wrong hands.”

While the federal government has been stagnant in achieving more robust gun reform in recent years, individual states have taken it upon themselves to enact their own measures.

New York, in February, became the latest state to adopt a red-flag law, which is intended to prevent individuals who show signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or possessing any kind of firearm. It also allows teachers as well as family members and others to petition the courts for protective orders.

Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G., a youth advocacy group that focuses against gang and gun violence, said all he and others ask is for the bullets to stop. He began his speech imitating the sounds of gunshots in front of the packed crowd.

“’Pop, pop, pop,’ in day care centers; ‘pop, pop, pop,’ in synagogues; ‘pop, pop, pop’ in houses of worship,” said Argueta. “… It is not fair that we have kids that walk into school that look like prisons. It is not fair that people that go out to Walmart to prepare their kids to start the new school year die.”

Family members of gun violence victims shared their stories.

Tracy Bacher of Moms Demand Action spoke at the rally about a need for gun legislation at the federal level. Photo by David Luces

“It is about time that we do something different, we have been here for Sandy [Hook], we have been here for Parkland and nothing changes,” said Rita Kestenbaum, whose daughter Carol was killed by a gunman in 2007 when she was a sophomore at Arizona State University. “Background checks are lovely, red-flag laws are lovely, but if we don’t get semi-automatic weapons banned, then all of this is for nothing.”

Shenee Johnson said gun violence is preventable. Her son, Kedrick, was killed in a shooting at a high graduation party in 2010. She was in Washington D.C. at a conference called Gun Sense University when she heard of the shooting in El Paso.

“For so many years, I’ve tried to hide my pain and shield my pain from others, but I’m dying inside,” Johnson said. “We can no longer go on like this, how many times do we have to go through something like this.”

Other speakers called for people to fight to end gun violence and the hate that fuels it.

“To eradicate hate, we must fight it with love and action,” said David Kilmnick, of the LGBT Network. “…We say by coming here together that this is not a normal way of life. This is not the America we know.”

Genesis Yanes, a student at Nassau Community College and counselor at S.T.R.O.N.G Youth, was one of many members who brought handmade signs to the rally. The non-profit works with individuals ages 11-21. A hand full of elementary and middle school students were at the rally.

“This is something that affects them directly and their communities, we just want to show them that there are people here who are advocating for this change,” she said.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) hands out survey cards at local rail stations and seeks commuter input. Photo by Donna Deedy

The electrification of the Long Island Rail Road’s Port Jefferson Branch is back on the table, and government officials say they’re optimistic about the prospect, since now there’s some money to fund the idea.

New York State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) during an informal interview May 9 at the Huntington train station, where he was personally handing out commuter surveys, said he predicts that the line will become fully electrified within the next five years. 

Morning commuters at the Huntington station where many switch trains to go both east and west. Photo by Donna Deedy

“It’s been talked about for decades,” he said. “It’s time to make it happen.”

Currently, the branch east of Huntington uses diesel or double-decker, dual-fuel trains, that are prohibited in Manhattan. Commuters between New York City and points east of Huntington on the Port Jefferson Branch must change from diesel to electric trains, or vice versa for the reverse commute, at various junctions, typically in Huntington. The process is time consuming and inconvenient for passengers, who are often subject to inclement weather on an open platform. Electric trains would eliminate the need to change trains and would create a time-saving, one-seat ride to Manhattan. 

Gaughran, who is serving his first term in the state Senate, has been a major proponent of the MTA Rail Act, an overhaul plan, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed into law last month. New York State’s 2019-20 budget funds the overhaul and includes an expected $1.5 billion in capital projects for the Long Island Rail Road. Funds will be used for a variety of needs, but new trains and increased service are top priorities, according to Gaughran’s office. 

Electrification makes sense now, Gaughran said, because it would help address both congestion at Huntington’s station, which serves 41,440 daily weekday riders, while speeding up the slow commute to New York City.

Gaughran said that he’s already taken steps to advocate for electrification. He’s also conducted mobile town halls on trains during the morning commute to solicit passenger input on all rail service issues and will present passengers comments from his surveys to railroad officials later this year. 

Details from the Long Island Rail Road 

The LIRR is currently evaluating proposals, according to its spokesperson, and will soon award contracts to begin the electrification studies for both the Port Jefferson Branch and the Central Branch, which connects Babylon to Hicksville via Bethpage. The studies will determine what is required to complete each project.

Overall, the electrification project, in addition to a new fleet, would require significant investments in infrastructure such as new substations, a third rail and a second track between Huntington and Port Jefferson, upgrades to half-dozen platforms and work on bridges, viaducts and crossings, according to LIRR’s spokesperson. Additional train storage yard(s) will also be needed. 

The railroad does not yet have funding for construction but is seeking it for the Central Branch electrification in its 2020-24 capital program. Port Jefferson electrification would require additional funding in several other future programs. 

A faster, one-seat ride 

A common complaint among passengers interviewed for this report during the May 9 morning commute aboard trains on the Port Jefferson line supported the need for more rapid service. 

“It takes two hours to get to New York City from Stony Brook,” said John Morgan, a mathematician at Stony Brook University’s Simons Center for Geometry and Physics, who uses the train twice a week. “It’s too slow.” 

Larry Penner, a former Federal Transit Administration director in the New York region, who is familiar with MTA operations, capital projects and programs, said the one-seat ride to Manhattan in general is the best bang-for-the-buck idea for improving rail service for riders. 

“That would be a regional game changer for us.”

— Margot Garant

“Electrification of Ronkonkoma was selected over Port Jefferson back in the early 1980s,” Penner said. “Perhaps this time, Port Jefferson will come out on top this go-around almost 40 years later.”

Penner noted that the electrification of the railroad’s Central Branch east of Hicksville to Babylon holds the potential of creating a new north/south service route, which will provide detours to Jamaica during major service disruptions on the main line between Hicksville and Jamaica. 

For years, local elected representatives have recognized the commercial value and the resulting tax revenue benefits of electrification. 

“That would be a regional game changer for us,” Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant said during a phone interview.

The Long Island Rail Road is the busiest commuter railroad in North America, carrying an average of 301,000 customers each weekday on 735 daily trains. It’s comprised of more than 700 miles of rails on 11 different branches. For most lines, the terminus is Penn Station in Manhattan, with some lines originating or ending in Queens and Brooklyn.

The Huntington line, in addition to serving 41,440 daily weekday riders, serves another 11,210 travelers on the Port Jefferson line. 

State senators at THRIVE press conference. Photo by Maureen Rossi

Advocates say new budget has wins for people in recovery

By Maureen Rossi

With the opioid epidemic still endemic throughout Suffolk County and beyond, New York State senators are hoping the new state budget will mean more help for those in the throes of addiction.

Measures woven into and passed in the state budget include increasing access for those suffering with substance use disorder to access 28-day inpatient and outpatient programs without prior insurance authorization.  They also include money for a recovery high school start -up and no prior authorization for medication- assisted treatment.  

“These are critical reform measures,” said New York State Sen. Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood). In addition, she touted another reform, which will require emergency rooms to enact screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment for all overdose patients before they are released. For the first time, emergency room doctors will also initiate medically-assisted treatment to overdose patients prior to their release, utilizing drugs like buprenorphine that alleviate the craving for opioids including heroin. 

Long Island advocates rally in Albany for the state to do more about the opioid crisis on LI Lobby Day in March. Photo from Friends of Recovery NY

Martinez was joined by her Democratic colleagues at a press conference in Islandia April 12.  Senators Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck), James Gaughran (D-Northport), Kevin Thomas (D-Levittown) and Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) gathered at THRIVE Long Island, a community center for people in addiction recovery whose funding was a legislative win three years back.

The Island’s Democrats were joined by stakeholders to celebrate critical initiatives passed in this year’s state budget to combat Long Island’s pernicious opioid epidemic. Those stakeholders include parents of those lost to the epidemic, those in recovery and those in the prevention and addiction field, including the CEO of Family & Children’s Association Jeffrey Reynolds, of Smithtown.

 “There is still much work to be done to combat the opioid epidemic we are seeing here on Long Island,” Martinez added.  She looked to Reynolds to the right of the podium and shared that he was tenacious in getting the Long Island’s senators’ attention as the hours dwindled in budget meetings. “He used social media and tagged every single one of us and let us know what funding was missing in the budget.”

Kaplan said the crisis affects every community, every school and every community.   

“Too many innocent souls have been lost to this disease, they have been failed time and again,” Kaplan said.  “We are done with half-measures — we will do everything we can to help people get into long-term recovery.”  

One such measure included and passed in the budget was the funding of another THRIVE center for Nassau in Hempstead. The doors are scheduled to open next month.

Kaminsky met with some Long Island parents who lost loved ones to the epidemic prior to the budget process. Figures released by the addiction experts on Long Island put that figure at 3,400 since 2010.

“When a parent tells you the story of how they found their child (dead), you want to make sure another parent doesn’t experience that,” said Kaminsky.   

When it came to budget negotiations that lasted around the clock, the state senator said they would not take no for an answer.  

Suffolk County has long been a powerhouse when it comes to shining a light on the opioid epidemic and taking legislative measures to address it. Packages of historic bills have been pushed through statewide by Suffolk County advocates. The county is one of the state’s hardest hit counties and they were the first county in the country to file a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the makers of the drug OxyContin.  

Reynolds addressed the senators on behalf of the sixty-plus advocates present.  “ ‘Thank you’ seems insufficient. You promised on campaign trails you would do good for Long Island. Thank you so much for your efforts,” he stated.

However, Reynolds promised that he and the Long Island advocacy movement will always ask the senators to do more. 

Northport power plant. File photo

New York State and town officials are renewing their calls for changes to be made to Long Island Power Authority’s operations as the trial over the tax-assessed value of Northport Power Station is slated to begin Feb. 25.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) reintroduced legislation Jan. 31 that called for LIPA to be restructured so that eight of the utility company’s nine board members would be elected by public vote, among other changes.

“I don’t believe LIPA’s board as it exists offers any protection to the citizens of Long Island,” he said. “I think it needs to be scrapped and replaced.”

““I don’t believe LIPA’s board as it exists offers any protection to the citizens of Long Island.”

— Jim Gaughran

Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (D-Sag Harbor) has partnered with Gaughran to sponsor the bill in the state Assembly. The concept of the ratepayers protection act was first introduced in February 2017 by Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Thiele, co-sponsored by a coalition that included state Assemblyman Andrew Raia (R-East Northport). Those early bills failed to ever make it the Legislature’s floor for a vote.

Currently, LIPA’s nine-member board of trustees consists of five individuals appointed by the governor, two selected by the president or majority leader of the state Senate, and two chosen by the speaker of the Assembly.

The proposed ratepayers protection act calls for the state Legislature to create eight districts roughly equal in population size based on the last U.S. Census by May 1, 2021. A resident of each district would be elected to LIPA’s board to serve a two-year term as trustee, with the first elections to be held in December 2021. Candidates on the ballot would not be chosen by the political parties, and those elected would not be paid but could be reimbursed from the state for their related expenses, according to the draft.

In addition, the proposed legislation would require LIPA to hold public hearings before making future rate changes, give residents 30 days advance notice of the hearing and hold the event in the county it affects — Suffolk or Nassau. It would prohibit the utility company from increasing its rates to offset any losses from energy conservation efforts.

“I promised the residents of his district once elected, I was going to hold one of my first town halls on this — a town hall in Northport to drill down and deal with the issues of LIPA,” Gaughran said.

He will hold a town hall-style forum 10 a.m. March 16 in Northport High School’s auditorium with town and school district officials present to answer questions and review various options moving forward with LIPA, including the ratepayers protection act.

“We are encouraged to hear this legislation is being reintroduced, as it will provide the oversight and transparency needed to restore residents’ confidence in LIPA — ensuring that the best interests of the ratepayers are served,” Huntington spokeswoman Lauren Lembo said.

Huntington’s town board also voted unanimously Jan. 29 to petition its elected officials to amend state law to allow the Town of Huntington and Northport-East Northport school district access to the state’s Electric Generating Facility Cessation Mitigation Program funding in case LIPA is successful in getting the Northport power plant’s annual taxes reduced, as well as to put more money into that state fund. This bill also failed to find sufficient support to pass the state Legislature last year.

We’ve reviewed the Brookhaven settlement and found it to be irrelevant to our case.”

— Nick Ciappetta

The tax certiorari case is slated to begin trial Feb. 25. While the town and Northport school district have entered nonbinding mediation with five sessions being held to date, according to Lembo, an agreement has not been struck.

In contrast, the Town of Brookhaven formally settled its lawsuit with LIPA over the Port Jefferson power plant Dec. 14 agreeing to decrease taxes on the plant 50 percent incrementally over the next nine years.

“We’ve reviewed the Brookhaven settlement and found it to be irrelevant to our case,” Huntington Town Attorney Nick Ciappetta said. “The Brookhaven agreement has nothing to do with the Northport power plant.”

Ciappetta cited what he believes are several key differences between the Northport and Port Jeff stations: Northport’s output capacity is four times larger, it is a dual-fuel plant that is capable of operating on both natural gas and oil, and that its operation is vital to helping maintain the state’s power capacity requirements.

Gaughran said he is willing to review and support any state legislation which may aid Huntington and Northport in their ongoing legal battle with LIPA and National Grid.

“It’s clear that everyone has to continue to fight this,” he said. “We can’t be preparing to lose. Everyone must continue to fight — it’s too important.”

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