In some circles they may seem as a political odd couple, but James Skoufis, newly-minted chairman of the Senate Investigations and Joint Operations Committee, and Mike Anagnostakis, his part-time senior advisor, seem to have hit it off well.
“Mike and I work well together,” said Skoufis (D-Woodbury) at his New Windsor office where he was joined last week by the Republican Orange County Legislator from the Town of Newburgh.
The first committee assignment for the new senator, who succeeded Bill Larkin last month, is to chair the senate’s Investigations and Joint Operations Committee. Other members include Democrats Alessandra Biaggi, David Carlucci, Todd Kaminsky and Luis R. Sepulveda and Republicans Chris Jacobs and Andrew Lanza.
“I’m very excited about this position,” he says. “I’m a big believer in good, responsive government. Albany is neither good, nor responsive.”
He sees his new position as a way to root out corruption in a cracked system.
“If you can afford a lobbyist,” he says, “you’ve been able to get your way. It’s about time the rest of us got our way.”
The senate’s investigations committee is actually two committees folded into one: investigations and government operations. The investigations side, Skoufis says, has been nowhere to be found in recent years.
“We are doing deep dives into issues that nobody has cared about before,” he adds, with a scope that is not limited to employees of state government, but to the actors and organizations outside of state government that interact, or otherwise do business with Albany. Included among them are drug companies and their lobbyists and businesses that deal with economic development.
And unlike most legislative committees, this one has actual subpoena power.
“In an ideal world,” he says, “we’ll never have to use it.”
Though his party captured the senate majority in November, Skoufis is a Democrat in a largely Republican district, in a seat held by Republicans for more than three decades. It’s the same district where Donald Trump won by a 12 percent margin in 2016.
It is in this mix that Skoufis crossed party lines to bring in Anagnostakis as a part-time expert on the financial matters.
Anagnostakis is a Republican who has on occasion butted heads with his own party in the Orange County Legislature. He recently withdrew from the legislature’s Republican caucus.
While the senate in now in the hands of Democrats, it is largely controlled by the New York City sphere of influence.
“Our senator wants to represent the interests of a more rural constituency,” says Anagnostakis.
The two were briefly opponents in a three-way race (with Republican Tom Basile of Rockland County) for the senate seat that Skoufis won last November. Anagnostakis withdrew and crossed party lines to support his fellow Orange County resident. Now Anagnostakis says it was the best possible outcome.
“Had I won, I would have been in the minority party,” he says. “The district wouldn’t get any money.”
As an advisor, Anagnostakis talks to his boss about issues and votes coming up, as well as policy issues and what they call a strategic vision. He is also in a position to review financial reports of companies doing business with the State of New York.
The work of the investigations committee could span months on any particular project. In it’s conclusion, the committee will issue recommendations to the full senate for new bills and new regulations.
One example of his work came when the senate passed the voting rights bill that would have allowed voters access to polls in days prior to the election. Though the passage was hailed as a means to give more people the right to vote, the New York State Association of Counties expressed fear that the costs would be passed down to the counties that administer the elections.
Anagnostakis disputed reports that put that price tag at half a million for Orange County, and said the figure would be closer to $50,000. Skoufis now says he will try to get the state to pick up that cost.
Skoufis, in promising bipartisan investigations, acknowledged that he might also run afoul of the hardcore Democrats in his own party.
“I’ve had my tussles with the governor,” he adds.
A wry smile comes across the senator’s face when asked to describe his relationship with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“He’s on my speed dial,” he says. “I’m on his speed dial.”
Like it or not, though, he says the Governor and his staff have to work with him.
“I see the Governor a handful of times a year. When he’s right abut something, I agree with him.”
He didn’t agree when the governor recently vetoed a bill to reimburse hefty fines imposed on the Newburgh ($13 million) and Chester Schools Districts ($3 million) brought about by clerical errors.
“The outrageously disproportionate penalties were imposed for clerical “errors allegedly made by the district many years ago and stand to have a tremendously adverse impact on the two communities’ schools, students, and taxpayers,” said Skoufis, even before taking office. “The governor approved identical amnesty legislation for the North Syracuse and Henry Hudson school districts earlier this year, establishing an inexplicable double standard.
“With his two vetoes, Governor Cuomo has demonstrated disturbing disregard for Orange County’s students, including the over one-third of children in the City of Newburgh who live in poverty. He frequently accuses the President of lacking compassion yet Governor Cuomo’s actions are nothing short of cold and calculating, particularly heartless during the holiday season.”
The senate staff currently occupies the office space held by his predecessor Bill Larkin on Little Britain Road in New Windsor. He will soon be moving his staff to downtown Newburgh, into the former Newburgh Savings and Loan Building near the intersection of Grand Street and Broadway. More recently, it was the office for the then-Eastern Orange County Chamber of Commerce.
In his recent travels, Skoufis took a ride down Broadway. He noticed a decrepit bus shelter with a posted bus schedule that is no longer legible. Though Orange County runs the transit line, he will ask the state for the money to replace the bus shelter and ask the county to update and replace the bus schedule.
He also noticed a line of zombie poles along Broadway. These are utility poles that are no longer in service, normally propped against functional poles. He has contacted Central Hudson to remove them.
He also has asked the state for an anti-graffiti power washer, which, he says; his senate staff will put to work.
The district serves portions of Orange and Ulster Counties, including the Towns of Newburgh, New Windsor, Crawford and Montgomery in Orange, and Plattekill and Marlborough in Ulster.
He met recently with Town of Montgomery Supervisor Rod Winchell, and offered to help the town improve its infrastructure.
In Marlborough, where residents recently voted down a resolution to sell the former Marlborough Volunteer Ambulance Corps headquarters, Skoufis met with Supervisor Al Lanzetta to discuss plans to create a community center.
In Plattekill, he is working with Town of Newburgh Legislator Leigh Benton (whose district borders the Plattekill line) to assist the fire department in securing access to the New York State Thruway. The fire department is often called to respond to motor vehicle accidents along the Thruway. Though an overpass is located near the firehouse, there is no nearby on/off ramp. Skoufis is looking for state funds to remedy this.
In Crawford there is concern about the integrity of the Pine Bush School District. With a large Hasidic population moving into nearby Bloomingburg, there is a fear that its residents could one day create a voting bloc and dominate the Pine Bush Board of Education. Skoufis is sponsoring legislation to create a ward system to insure that each of the communities that comprise the school district: Pine Bush, Circleville, and Bloomingburg, are represented on the school board.
In the Town of Newburgh, money is also needed for infrastructure improvements and there is concern for properties moving off the tax roll. Skoufis favors legislation that would force church-owned vacant lands back on the tax roll after seven year of dormancy. He says that problem also exists in the City of Newburgh as well and would support relief for any community that has a certain percentage of its properties off the tax roll.
And in New Windsor, where Skoufis says he has a good relationship with Supervisor George Green, he is promising to find money to develop new water sources and more funding for the police department. The town is part of three school districts, and Skoufis is looking to provide funding for full-day Kindergarten in the Washingtonville School District.
The process of weeding out corruption and representing the interests of his district is just beginning. He repeated his pledge to make it a bipartisan effort.
“I ran on this,” he says, “I believe this in my core.”