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An unprecedented year with successes

I will never forget the evening of November 5, 2019. It was Election Night and the returns were in. I was going to be the next State Senator for the 57th District. I was overwhelmingly grateful to the voters of our region for trusting me to represent them in Albany and I immediately began formulating priorities for my first year.

Yet, little did I know that my best-laid plans would be disrupted by a once-in-a-century pandemic. Just a little over two months into my first Legislative Session, our state was hit with a major outbreak of the coronavirus, which led to the sudden closure of schools, churches and most businesses. The world as we knew it was forever changed.

Like so often in life, my priorities had to adapt to the moment. My priorities remained intact, that list had to expand to include emerging issues.

Looking back on this first year, it certainly was “unprecedented,” a word that we’ve heard a lot in the last seven months. But, it was also incredibly productive and included accomplishments as well as progress on certain issues that are still evolving. Below are some highlights.

The COVID-19 Crisis and Helping our Residents: As the sudden closure of our economy spurred a severe economic crisis, my offices were receiving calls nearly around the clock from distressed, out-of-work constituents seeking help with their unemployment claims. People could not get through to the Department of Labor’s overstressed phone and online systems. All told, we helped more than 3,000 of our local residents, as well some from as far as away as NYC, secure unemployment benefits.

Helping Businesses Navigate NY on Pause: Operating a business in New York is difficult in ordinary times, but during this crisis, it was a minefield. We helped countless regional businesses navigate the complex and ever-changing Executive Orders coming from Albany. I engaged regularly with business leaders across a range of industries to brief them on latest developments, provide advisement and answer questions.

Restarting New York: The realities of the pandemic were starkly different across the state.. Even as some hospitals in New York City were overwhelmed, infection rates in upstate regions were extremely low. Despite these disparities, the economy of the entire state was painfully locked down, all together, and all indications were it would remain that way in its reopening. “Restarting New York” was a plan that I developed with my colleague, Assemblyman Andy Goodell, that outlined a phased-in, regionally driven reopening of our state. Using the state’s existing ten Regional Economic Development Council zones (REDC) as the template, the plan included a detailed risk assessment tool to determine a region’s capacity for reopening. Weeks later, it became the model for the state’s reopening plan.

Bail Reform: As the Chair of the Repeal Bail Reform Task Force, I hosted roundtables in February across the state to gather input from members of law enforcement, crime victims and substance abuse counselors on this disastrous law, which was spiking crime across the state. Our efforts generated significant public and media attention, intensifying the pressure on the Governor and New York City lawmakers to enact some “fixes,” which they did in the budget. However, as rising crime rates and shootings across the state illustrate, those tweaks weren’t enough. The efforts of the Task Force and our conference over this past year have mobilized public scrutiny of this ill-conceived law and set the stage for more progress in the coming year.

Rural Broadband Access: Among the inequities highlighted by the pandemic is the continuing lack of broadband service in many rural regions of New York. We are making progress on this issue on multiple fronts. I have waged a very public campaign against a tax on broadband installers that was quietly slipped into the 2019-20 budget, which is preventing the expansion of broadband service. I’ve introduced legislation to repeal it and have engaged a coalition of industry, government and community stakeholders to join these efforts.

As we look toward the next budget, I am optimistic this excessive and unfair fee will be revisited. My colleagues on both sides of the aisle are now recognizing the negative impact. We are also working closely with broadband providers to facilitate their cooperation with each other on future projects. We hope to have an announcement soon on one of these efforts.

Statewide Farm Tour: As the Ranking Member on the Agriculture Committee, I embarked on a statewide tour of farms and agricultural businesses to broaden my own knowledge and gather farmers’ feedback on state laws and regulations affecting them. It was also an effort to show solidarity with our struggling agriculture industry. In all, I traveled more than 3,000 miles, visiting farms on Long Island, the Mohawk Valley and Catskill region, the Hudson Valley, Central New York, the North Country and across the 57th District. It sparked ideas, new friendships and underscored the resilience, resourcefulness and commitment of those in our farming community.

Fighting to Help Our Farmers: I also led the fight to protect our already-struggling farmers by opposing any further lowering of the Farm Labor Act’s 60-hour per week overtime threshold for workers. I spoke with farmers and farm workers, who explained the damaging impact of further restrictions. I testified against any changes at a hearing held by an unelected, three-person “farm labor wage board” and introduced legislation to prevent further reductions in the threshold until at least 2024, to allow for the collection of more data on the mandate’s financial impact on farms.

Helping small businesses: Early in the COVID-19 crisis, I introduced the Small Business Relief Act to help ease cash flow challenges to get small businesses through the crisis. The legislation would allow employers to delay several state-mandated taxes, make available no interest loans and lines of credit from the NY Mortgage Corp and exempt businesses from higher unemployment insurance rates due to COVID-related layoffs that were beyond their control.

Cutting government waste: During this year’s budget process, I championed urgently needed reforms to the state’s Medicaid transportation services, known as NEMT (Non-Emergency Medical Transportation) and went public with statistics from Chautauqua County showing a staggering 1,300 percent cost increase in NEMT spending between 2013 and 2019. After I raised the issue, a key element in this program was changed, to increase the use of public transit and to incentivize efficiency. Our advocacy produced reforms that will save the state and local governments millions of taxpayer dollars.

Passage of Local Legislation

I have sponsored and co-sponsored more than 120 pieces of Senate legislation on a range of issues, including criminal justice, agriculture, tax and regulatory relief and Medicaid reform. Eight local bills that I sponsor have passed the Senate (the second highest in our conference), including legislation to forgive the Panama school district for a costly and egregious NYS Education Department fine, modifications to laws that will improve local government efficiency and measures to honor our fallen soldiers and veterans through memorial highway designations.

As I reflect on my first year in the Senate and look ahead, I remain enormously grateful for the opportunity I have been given to serve you, the hardworking people of the 57th District. With your contributions and sacrifices, we have come through the challenges of the past seven months and we will get through whatever lies ahead. You define the strength and the promise of this great region and inspire me to do my best, each and every day. I am truly honored to be your Senator.

State Sen. George Borrello represents the 57th district, which includes Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

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