Balter town hall

Democratic congressional candidate Dana Balter answers questions at a town hall meeting Saturday in Skaneateles. 

SKANEATELES — A standing-room-only crowd asked Dana Balter questions for more than an hour Saturday at the Democratic candidate's latest town hall meeting in the 24th Congressional District.  

No topic was off limits during the forum, which was held at the Skaneateles Historical Society at The Creamery. Early on, Balter was asked how she would bridge the partisan divide and end the gridlock that has prevented Congress from addressing some of the most pressing issues. Her solution would be to have "real conversations" with members of Congress and find common ground. 

One issue she believes both parties can agree on: infrastructure. She praised President Donald Trump for saying that improving infrastructure was a priority for his administration. Democrats and Republicans, she noted, want to boost infrastructure investments. 

But more than a year and a half into Trump's presidency, there hasn't been an infrastructure plan adopted and Congress hasn't passed any new legislation to implement such a wide-ranging proposal. 

"This is an area where we can actually make progress together," Balter said. 

She also faced questions about what she supports to reduce gun violence. One proposal she supports would be to pass legislation requiring universal background checks for gun purchases. The measure would aim to close existing loopholes that allow gun sales without background checks. 

Balter supports the repeal of the Dickey Amendment, which is a provision that was included in a 1990s spending bill to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting gun violence research. A spending bill passed earlier this year clarified that the CDC could conduct gun violence research, but the Dickey Amendment remains in effect. 

"We need to repeal that amendment, give the CDC the power back to study gun violence and then Congress needs to fund those studies," she said. 

On immigration, Balter said she's passionate about the issue because of her personal background. Her grandparents were refugees who fled Europe during World War II and eventually settled in upstate New York. 

The current immigration system, Balter explained, is broken. She said it doesn't work for immigrants and it doesn't work for employers, especially farms, that hire immigrant laborers. 

She supports improving the visa system and comprehensive immigration reform. But she believes it must be done in separate pieces. To begin the process, she wants Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and are now productive members of society. 

Not all of the issues discussed were about national policy. Concerns about water quality were raised during the town hall meeting. Harmful algal booms have been found in Owasco and Skaneateles lakes, both of which provided drinking water to residents of the 24th district. 

The presence of harmful algal blooms in Skaneateles Lake "was a wake-up call for the scientific community," Balter said. 

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To protect the bodies of water, Balter supports promoting sustainable farming practices. These practices can be expensive for farmers, which is why she believes the farm bill should include more funding to give farms the resources needed to adopt new practices that would reduce or prevent nutrients from getting into lakes and tributaries. 

Climate disruption, Balter said, is another problem affecting lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. She criticized her opponent, U.S. Rep. John Katko, for supporting the United States' withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. 

"We need people who are going to be champions on this issue," she said. 

Balter was asked for her ideas to combat rising student loan debt. Total student loan debt now exceeds more than $1.5 trillion. 

Student loan debt could collapse the economy, she said. She stressed the need for debt forgiveness programs, such as initiatives for teachers who work for five years in a low income school district. The Trump administration has rolled back some of those programs, she explained. 

"We need to make more of them," she said. 

She thinks blanket loan forgiveness programs should be considered, especially for those struggling with debt. The federal government, she noted, bailed out banks and other financial institutions. It also assisted the automobile industry and prevented its collapse. 

"The student loan crisis is approaching that kind of a problem and we need to think about how we can protect the economy as a whole," Balter said. 

Near the end of her town hall meeting, one attendee took a break from asking policy questions and instead asked Balter what she was most proud of in her life. 

For Balter, the answer was easy. It's her campaign for Congress. 

"It's not because of what I'm doing. It's because of what I'm a part of ... It is 100 percent a team project," she said. 

Balter is challenging Katko, R-Camillus, in the 24th district race. She will hold three more town hall meetings over the next few weeks, including a forum in Cayuga County Sept. 5. 

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 6. 

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Online producer Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or robert.harding@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.