Written by Karen Gellender Friday, 15 October 2010 00:00
At the Monday, Oct. 4 “Know Before You Vote” Forum, hosted and moderated by the League of Women Voters, incumbents Carl Marcellino (R-5th SD), Kemp Hannon (R-6th SD), Joseph Saladino (R-12th AD) and Charles Lavine (D-13th AD) had a difficult game to play: blame Albany for high taxes and dysfunctional governance, yet portray their continued presence there as an asset to the Long Island taxpayer. Incumbent Michael Montesano (R-15th AD), only in office since February, had the benefit of being able to present himself as both newcomer and experienced politician. Meanwhile, challengers Larry Silverman (D), Francesca Carlow (D), Leon Hart (D) and Robert Germino (R) could attack the alleged failings of the state government with few reservations.
At what was often a contentious event, moderator Paula Blum struggled not only to keep the candidates to their designated time limits, but to control the noisy and at times, combative crowd; Blum reminded the audience several times that they should take their concerns to heart on Election Day rather than shouting them at the candidates on stage. One attendee yelled “Stop Spending!” several times before being asked to leave.
While the majority of the audience at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library were not shouting at the candidates, the atmosphere was often tense, with some apparent animosity between some of the candidates as well as the more vocal members of the audience. Nevertheless, the candidates did discuss cleaning up Albany, cutting spending, and job creation, among other important topics.
“Albany’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons and I’m not even talking about the ethical and criminal issues that too many of our officials have faced. I’m talking about spending; it boils down to money,” said Hart, challenger for the 15th Assembly District seat against Montesano. Statements similar to Hart’s were repeated consistently throughout the evening by most of the candidates present.
While every candidate talked about lowering taxes and cutting spending, specific examples of what to cut and how to cut it were rare. However, some examples were mentioned; Marcellino said that there was a need to get rid of what he called “crazy authorities.” “There’s hundreds of them that are out there that are just wasting money and wasting time and produce absolutely nothing,” he said.
Montesano commented that the way pensions of public sector employees were calculated needed reform. However, Silverman, challenger for Marcellino’s seat, pointed out that pensions paid to railroad employees came out of the federal system, as well as disability payments. “And there are also collective bargaining agreements you can’t throw in the garbage,” said Silverman.
Naturally, incumbents who had voted for tax increases in the past, or supported colleagues who had, experienced some difficulty maintaining consistency with their stated anti-taxes position. When an attendee asked Saladino how he could claim to support fellow Republican Hannon when Hannon had raised taxes so many times, Saladino noted that he and his colleagues would vote for bills that increased school aid, which often came in an omnibus format that denied lawmakers the luxury of picking and choosing which parts to fund.
While government spending is related to the popular contention that New York State government is not functioning as it should, general Albany dysfunction was treated as a separate issue from spending at the forum. An audience member raised the topic of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law study that pegged the New York State Legislature as the most dysfunctional state legislature in the country, asking the candidates what they would do to make government more functional. All of the candidates mentioned cutting the size of government and consolidating departments in some capacity.
While several of the Republican candidates essentially blamed the Democrats currently in charge of the senate for the alleged problems, Lavine tried to move the dialogue away from the two parties trading blame.
“Look, this isn’t republican, this isn’t Democratic; Budgets grew tremendously when we had a Republican governor and we had a Republican senator. Let’s get back to the issues, this isn’t a Democrat-Republican kind of throwing-pie-at-each-other contest,” said Lavine.
While Marcellino agreed that Albany was dysfunctional (his opening statement included the admission that the grand majority of his constituents were “fed up” with their government, and that he did not blame them), he said that the Brennan Center study was “flat wrong” and based on many assumptions and opinions.
Challenger Robert Germino said that he thought that Albany needed ethics reform “with real teeth,” and talked about his plan to support pay being withheld from legislators if they could not pass a budget on time, as they could not this year. “If the legislators controlled by the Democrat majority right now cannot pass a budget on time…they shouldn’t get paid,” Germino said.
“Well, they don’t get paid [when that happens], and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference,” responded Lavine.
Montesano said that it was the leadership that had to be changed, as well as the rules for how bills are brought to the floor. “The dysfunction is inherent in the rules that establish the operation of the Assembly,” said Montesano.
On the topic of job creation, many of the candidates said they would support new technologies, and make it easier for corporations to operate in New York. “We need to remove the tax burden from their businesses; we need to go out of state and attract businesses back, the same way Pennsylvania, Jersey and Connecticut have come here and taken business away from us,” said Montesano.
Hannon commented that his plan for job creation had not been implemented: “I proposed a plan that would give an absolute tax credit for each job created when the job was created. It was not passed, I do still believe it’s what we need,” said Hannon. He went on to call the film tax credit, which was passed this year, “terrible,” saying that it helped Manhattan and possibly the Hamptons, but not Nassau County.
One topic that kept cropping up in the context of multiple questions was the MTA payroll tax. Both Marcellino and Germino frequently referred to it as a “job-killer,” and many of the candidates criticized Lavine for having voted for it, the only incumbent at the table who had done so. In response to the criticism, Lavine pointed out that fates of both Long Island Railroad and Long Island Bus were included in the MTA’s fiscal crisis.
“This wasn’t a fun vote; it wasn’t an easy vote. But the choice seemed clear: Protect my political rear end…or save the Long Island Railroad. I wasn’t losing the Long Island Railroad on my watch,” said Lavine with conviction.
Silverman noted that he served as a non-voting board member on the MTA at one point, and was able to observe the makings of the crisis first-hand. According to Silverman, in 2002, the MTA borrowed $18 billion. “I asked the vice president of finance ‘How are you gonna pay that back?’ and Gary said to me, ‘we always find a way,” Silverman remembered. He explained that interest rates were low for the first couple of years, having since gone up, and that the loan was an example of a “teaser rate” loan. While he could not stop the MTA from borrowing due to being a non-voting board member, as a “watchdog,” he said he was able to request documents and write editorials on the subject, which can still be found online.
“That’s really the cause of the financial crisis that the legislature had to solve. It should have been solved another way, but you have to know that before you let them trash the people that kept the transit system working,” said Silverman.
On the subject of term limits, the candidates were split fairly evenly in terms of whether or not they supported them. Carlow, Silverman, Hart and Montesano said they supported term limits, while Marcellino, Hannon, Germino and Lavine said they did not (although Hannon noted that he supported term limits for those in party leadership positions.) Saladino had left the forum before the term limits question was posed and was not available to offer his stance.
Marcellino said that implementing term limits gave bureaucrats the ability to simply wait out elected officials they disagreed with. “There are term limits; it’s called an election,” said Marcellino.
However, Silverman contended that term limits would allow qualified challengers to have a chance, since incumbents tend to gain access to more campaign funds the longer they are in office. “When someone has ten times the amount of money I have to run a campaign because they get, as my opponent does, more than two thirds in the last filing period from special interests and corporations…that doesn’t provide for a balanced competition,” said Silverman. While Lavine said that he didn’t think term limits accomplished in practice what they were supposed to in theory, he acknowledged the concern, stating that experimenting with publicly financed elections, starting with the election of judges, was a good way to start to solve the campaign funding disparity problem that Silverman spoke of.
Germino noted that he thought re-districting was a better reform option than implementing term limits; in response to a question about re-districting to be done by an independent commission, all candidates said they supported it.
Another topic that was raised was the Tea Party movement; many candidates said that while they supported some ideas of the Tea Party, they did not consider themselves part of it. Carlow said that while she is in favor of people being energized to action, she is not a Tea Party person. “I am not a supporter of the Tea Party; I am a supporter of independent people, speaking up, and saying what is right,” said Carlow.
When apparent Tea Party members yelled at the candidates when they explained their views on the movement, Lavine was critical of them.
“Shouting down congressional representatives, is not, to my way of thinking, the way we conduct a civil discourse on change in this country,” said Lavine. “When the day comes when we cannot civilly engage each other, then we will be lost.” When he went on to say that he did not agree with the Tea Party tactic of intimidation, he was booed loudly by members of the audience- to which Blum, even as the impartial moderator, could not help but comment that they were proving his point.
“As Groucho Marx would have said, I rest my case,” said Lavine.