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Assemblyman D. Billy Jones discusses State of the State and legislative priorities

Assemblyman D. Billy Jones talks about plan to vaccinate Canadian essential travelers
Pat Bradley/WAMC
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Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (file)

New York Democrat D. Billy Jones represents northern New York’s 115th Assembly district. He was in Albany for Governor Kathy Hochul’s first State of the State address last week, but watched it from his office due to COVID restrictions. Jones tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he is pleased that a number of initiatives outlined by Hochul will benefit the North Country.

Certainly broadband is a huge issue here in the North Country. And I like the fact that she had mentioned, you know, the billion dollar investment we'll be putting towards broadband, which will benefit residents here in the North Country, as well as streamline lining the process to get broadband out to our rural areas here in the North Country. I think that's a huge, huge issue. I was happy that she mentioned that. We need more of it. It is a big, big issue. Maybe a third of my correspondence and my phone calls and my emails with my constituents come in and it's broadband or cellular service related. Agriculture. I'm elated that she mentioned agriculture and farmers as much as she did. I have watched many of these addresses, State of the State addresses, over the past years and I've never heard a governor mention in detail how they wanted to help out the agriculture industry, help out with production costs, help out with labor costs. I think that was huge of her to mention because agriculture is such a large part of our way of life here in the North Country. Childcare, workforce development. We have a workforce shortage not only here in the North Country but throughout New York State. Trying to address that. Helping our community colleges out. Helping our colleges out with TAP. Giving part time students the option to have TAP available to them which helps our colleges out. It also helps with workforce development. You know, in prior times, a student going to night courses or going part time to try to better themselves, try to find a different, you know, career different field they weren't eligible for that tap assistance. She mentioned that she wanted to provide tap assistance. A lot of initiatives there. I just liked her tone right off the bat saying we want to, I want to, work with you. We want to work together to better the lives of the people in New York and in the North Country and all over the state. I really like that.

Is it the tone or are there other factors that you've seen as Governor Hochul has taken that office that is making you optimistic that some of these issues can move forward? Because things like broadband and workforce development we've heard for years and years and years.

Well what I liked about the broadband initiative was there was a recognition. And the former governor, you know, and I will applaud him when we came out with the 500 million. The 500 million it was a billion dollar public private partnership. There has been broadband provided to people in the North Country that hadn't had it before. But for many years legislators like myself and local officials have said you can't just check off that box and say that everybody has broadband because they don't. So for her to recognize that we need to make a significant investment in broadband again is encouraging. Now I always say we have to implement this stuff. And if this doesn't cover it we need to do more. But I will give her a lot of credit for that. And workforce development. I like the fact that she said we're going to involve the community colleges. We're going to involve the vocational schools. We're going to involve everybody. I've always said, I've said it for the past five or six years here, we need to break down those silos and work together for workforce development, to get people in those career paths that will help our employers and our non-for-profits and everyone that's looking to get people to work here or get people to fill those jobs. It was an issue before the pandemic and certainly is a huge issue now. We are not going to be a sustainable economy and we're not going to have economic development anywhere in New York, anywhere in the country and in the North Country if our employers continue to struggle to find people to fill those positions and to fill those jobs,

D. Billy Jones, were you disappointed in anything in her speech or did she omit anything that you would have liked to have heard?

Certainly I liked a lot of the points that she hit on but certainly public safety. She mentioned about you know, gun violence and the spike in gun violence. That's no secret. And crime rates are rising throughout New York state. Not necessarily here in the North Country as far as in comparison to other parts of the state. A big Issue is bail reform for many people here in in the North Country and throughout the state. I would have liked her to touch on a little bit more of that certainly. And you know there are a few things that we can change and should change as far as fixing the fixes to bail reform.

Well along the lines of bail reform going into prison reform, she mentioned education of inmates so that they can mesh into society better. And yet they're planning to close Moriah Shock which is, you know the name of it sounds really nasty but it's actually....

I wish they would've changed the name.

But it's actually an educational center for inmates and they're closing it. So that seems in total contrast to her coming out and saying we want to educate inmates. So what did you make of that?

What I made of it was just what you just said honestly. And as you were asking the question my answer was going to be just what you said. How can we say that we're going to do this on this hand and then on the other point close down a facility like that. I will say Moriah Shock, I've been through it. It is a wonderful program. You can see the individuals that go through it. You can actually see the changes. I've been to the graduation, the emotion on their faces and what they have accomplished through this. The staff really takes it personal as well. They do a great job with these individuals. When we're talking about jails-to-jobs programs on one hand, but on the other hand, we're closing down, and this isn't the first time that we've closed down a facility that had good programs there to help individuals. We have to communicate more with the right hand and the left hand. And I'm I'm I'm a little perplexed on that.

Billy Jones, obviously it's the beginning of a legislative session so you're planning what bills you're going to put forth on the assembly floor. How much does what is outlined in Governor Hochul's State of the State mesh with what you've got planned to put forward in the assembly?

Certainly we can talk about broadband. I have a bill out there right now because there wasn't a lot of clarity on this. The influx of federal money that will be coming to towards us for broadband. I have a bill that says that New York State shouldn't tax that money coming in because there's the DOT tax that we have in there that New York State implemented in a budget a couple years ago. There are these survey fees that have to be paid to utility companies. So on one hand, you know, we have all this money coming in. But we certainly need to address for, especially for our smaller broadband providers that are trying to get out into areas like the North Country trying to get families connected, we need to address those issues as well. And I am a cosponsor on eliminating the DOT right-of-way tax which will help broadband companies. Agriculture is a huge issue for me. I have a lot of legislation, co-sponsor a lot of legislation out there that deals with that. I will say the middle class tax cut and the property tax help that is coming to New York hopefully it'll get through the budget process that she has proposed will help residents here. You know, there's a lot of initiatives here. Public safety. I have a bill in as you know, for EMS cost recovery so that we are making sure that all of our families here in New York state and in in the North Country are provided with first responders. So there's a lot of issues that I can go into. I just thought the overall theme of the State of the State. You know of course I would put in a few more issues that deal with people here in the in the North Country. But I thought she hit on a lot of points: childcare, health care, retention and attracting health care workers. A big issue for us not only in the hospitals, which they need help as well, but a big issue for us here in the North Country and throughout New York state is getting home health aides into the home. I like the fact that her health care proposal mentioned that. I have legislation out there that helps reimburse for their transportation costs, helps Medicaid and other resources helps that reimbursement rate. Because we're different than other areas of the state. Here you may have to drive 50 miles round trip for some of these. So reimbursements, proper reimbursement, so it at least pays for their darn gas money. But I was happy that she was addressing healthcare as a whole to make sure that we retain and that we attract more healthcare workers. Teachers as well. Streamlining the teacher accreditation process, the teacher certification process I should say. We need to address that because we have a large teacher shortage here in New York state and it's only getting worse. So I'm opened to all those proposals. Certainly will help the North Country out as well and help residents here.

Democrat D. Billy Jones is in his third term representing Clinton and Franklin counties and four St. Lawrence County towns in the New York state Assembly.

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