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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 25, 2011

Tonko takes community’s pulse

By Jo E. Prout

ALTAMONT — Families and local politicians attended Congressman Paul Tonko’s town hall meeting here last week. The standing-room-only crowd listened to Tonko’s thoughts on putting Americans back to work, but raised tough topics ranging from extending the war in Afghanistan to hydrofracking. 

Tonko, a Democrat, represents the 21st Congressional District, which covers seven counties, including Albany County. Members of several town and village boards from Albany and Schoharie counties attended the meeting, as did families who arrived pushing strollers.

The crowd clapped when Tonko called for a “full public airing” of  the bipartisan committee of 12 legislators called on to present a list of budget cuts to Congress by November.

The applause was lukewarm for Tonko’s response to Washington’s plan to reduce the deficit and raise the debt ceiling.

“I cast a ‘no’ vote on the plan that we put together,” Tonko said. “Revenues should be part of it.”

Previously, Tonko had said that the plan approved by Congress did not help or provide jobs for middle-class Americans. Tonko’s emphasis during his town hall circuit throughout the 21st District has been on putting America back to work.

Jim Torriani, of Knox, asked how the country should move forward if bipartisan efforts do not work.

Tonko said that those in public leadership should not fall back behind party lines.

“I want to mix up my team,” the congressman said. “Drawing lines in the sand is the highest order of foolishness.”

“Why are we still in Iraq?” asked a Feura Bush resident, to great applause. “Why are we still in Afghanistan?” He said that the United States is throwing trillions of dollars “down this rat hole.”

Tonko agreed that the country cannot afford to waste that money.

“We have to reassess how we’re going to invest our military,” he said, turning the discussion to economics. Tonko said that he had introduced legislation to keep corporations from pulling in huge profits “at the expense of going to war.”

A Berne resident worried about how hydrofracking — using liquids to introduce fractures into shale to allow deeply buried gas to be recovered more easily — will affect well water sources.

“A water economy is coming,” Tonko said. Tonko described his Mighty Waters Initiative, a plan to reinvigorate upstate New York waterfronts and maintain the state’s Erie Canal waterway heritage with a combined effort of public investment, private investment, and academia. He said that a greater reliance on a water economy will come within the next 30 years, and that the state must protect its water and preserve the Erie Canal.

Responding to a question about cutting programs while increasing budgets, Tonko noted that the U.S. has paid attention to the service industry, while emphases on technology and agriculture have slipped.

“As we crunch the numbers here, we will find outmoded programs, but we must invest in science and technology,” Tonko said. Visiting manufacturers within his district, Tonko said, he has found that local companies have ideas on how to improve manufacturing, but they don’t have the capital to do it. He said that government needs to bolster these companies.

“It’s time for us to say, ‘Make it in America,’ ” Tonko said.

A Guilderland resident asked for Tonko’s thoughts on education.

“I’m one of the very few engineers on the Hill,” Tonko said, noting that he is one of eight, out of 435 legislators, with an engineering degree. Tonko noted statistics about Europeans and Asians with more math and engineering students. He said that, as with the Sputnik and moon races of the 1960s, Americans can apply themselves to improving its numbers of math students.

“It’s time for us to say we’re better than this,” Tonko said.

Tonko’s staff collected written comments from audience members who did not get a chance to address him during the meeting.

One teacher, who did not wish to be named in print and who did not have a chance to speak, left without writing a comment. She told The Enterprise that Tonko’s ideas were interesting, but that she was worried about the No Child Left Behind legislation. A greater emphasis on math and technology, as Tonko suggested, could mean the loss of her job as a social studies teacher in an era of budget cuts, she said. Students need to be taught other subject areas, too, she said. Focusing on math and technology, she said, could not only affect her job, but the education of her students, she said.

“We still need social studies teachers,” she said.

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