Medicaid, Education, Taxes and Vaccines: Lifton’s Last Town Hall in Ithaca

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ITHACA, NY (WSKG) –  New York Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton held her last Ithaca town hall meeting on Friday evening. The meeting was held in the town court, a large, high ceilinged room. It was filled to capacity with over 60 people.

The crowd included four of the seven candidates seeking to replace Lifton in the Assembly.

In early February, Lifton announced she will retire from the Legislature at the end of this term. She represents the 125th Assembly district, which covers Tompkins and parts of Cortland counties.

At the town hall, Lifton presented an overview of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s $178 billion budget.

She talked for almost an hour about the potential local impacts of his proposed cuts to Medicaid, education, municipal funding and the state’s plan to address climate change.

The state faces a $6.1 billion budget deficit.

Lifton was especially critical of the governor’s proposal to cut over $2 billion from Medicaid while insisting that it not reduce the services to people. Part of it will require counties to cover their full Medicaid expenses if they exceed the 2% property tax cap. She explained that a majority of those using Medicaid are elderly who need long-term care, children and the working poor.

She also said it’s likely the state will need to put more money into healthcare not less, because of the anticipated spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

“It doesn’t seem to me like a time to be cutting critical healthcare dollars,” Lifton quipped. She said Democrats in the Assembly will fight the governor’s proposed Medicaid cuts.

When she opened the meeting to questions, emotions quickly spilled over. The first to speak was a woman who objected to Lifton’s vote to end religious exemption to vaccinations for school-aged children.

When Lifton tried to stop her from reading a statement, about six other women stood from their seats calling for her to be heard. The woman was allowed to continue, but Lifton interrupted her at times to challenge the accuracy of some of her statements about vaccines and their effects.

The Legislature voted last year to end the option of religious exemptions in the midst of a significant measles outbreak in the state.

Lori LaBonte was one of the women who spoke about the impact of the change. She is the mother of a 5-year-old with special education needs like speech therapy. She says her children are not vaccinated for religious reasons. She began to cry as she explained that her son’s development has regressed because being unvaccinated means he no longer gets the educational services he needs.

Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio

Lisa LaBonte, mother of a 5-year-old who is no longer receiving Special Education services because of the repeal of the religious exemption to vaccinations. (Celia Clarke/WSKG Public Radio)

“A piece of legislation does not change my conviction,” said LaBonte. “Does not change my belief. Does not change my family’s standing, with, with how they live!”

LaBonte said her family is Christian and their interpretation of the Bible is that God created human bodies and they should not be altered in the way that she understands vaccinations would work. She wants Lifton to advocate for children like her son who she feels are falling through the cracks because of the repeal.

For her part, Lifton explained she spoke to over fifty constituents and consulted with medical specialists before deciding how to vote.

She offered to meet individually with LaBonte and the other women to discuss their specific circumstances.

Discussion moved away from vaccines for a while. Others in the room had questions about other topics. Several were about the proposed climate change plan. According to Lifton, just creating the state plan will take over 2 years. It will be done by a Council created and staffed in the Department of Environmental Conservation.

She said she is pushing legislators to take some actions now by increasing funding for assistance to homeowners for measures like replacing appliances and renovations to make home more energy efficient.

Lifton’s final town hall of her legislative career will be in Cortland in March.