At the invitation of the Manhasset Bay Estates Association, Mike Balboni and Chris Murray, candidates for the New York State Senate from this district, addressed a group of Port Washington residents at the public library. The discussion was a friendly one, Balboni describing Murray as a "talented lawyer" and complimenting him on his "thoughtful presentation." Murra, in turn, referred to his opponent as a "nice guy," and said, "He has done a lot of nice things for our community." Nevertheless, both candidates made it clear that there are very real differences between them on a number of issues.
Murray focused on the failure of the Republican leadership to support issues that he believes are important to the constituents, contending, "New York has always been a progressive state, but now it has lagged and is 'floundering.'" He attributed that, in part, to the state senate leadership, pointing out that a number of items have passed in the Democratic-controlled assembly but not in the Republican-controlled senate. Balboni responded by saying that since the Republicans have gained the majority welfare reform was passed, the budget was balanced, there was a budget surplus, tax cuts were enacted and certain "bureaucratic" regulations with respect to business were eliminated.
Both candidates shared their concerns about protecting the environment. Murray blamed the Republicans for the fact that the superfund is now bankrupt. He pointed out that this district has a disproportionate number of hazardous waste sites, which he called "an atrocious situation." Balboni agreed, saying, "It is a travesty that the superfund has not been refunded." He added that he has been working with the governor and Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli to contribute $300,000 to provide access to the shoreline.
On the topic of education, Balboni said the legislature passed a one billion dollar increase in state aid. He commented that one of his concerns with respect to higher education is the "middle class student." "We take care of the poorest student in higher education, but what about the middle class student?" he asked. Murray maintained that school aid has not kept pace with the increasing needs of the educational system. "They are passing the buck to the school districts," he said.
Another issue that Murray raised was raising the minimum wage, also passed by the assembly and rejected by the senate. He said, "A working person deserves to make a living wage. Worker's comp and disability haven't increased in 10 years; we are one of the lowest states for disability." Balboni said that he has been fighting for a minimum wage bill, and "if we didn't have September 11, we probably would have had it." He commented that he has introduced and fought for many legislative initiatives that didn't go anywhere, adding, "It's not so much a question of Republicans and Democrats as upstate vs. downstate."
Other issues raised included Balboni's concern about New York' vulnerability to future terrorist attacks. "We are not ready for thousands and thousands of casualties," he said, "even though North Shore Hospital is probably the best prepared in the state and one of the best in the nation." He added that he introduced 36 bills on emergency preparedness. Murray voiced concern over the insurance parity for mental health patients and campaign finance reform.
A question-and-answer period followed, moderated by Jim McAleer from the Manhasset Bay Estates Association. Hal Doliner sparked a lively discussion by asking a question about the high cost of prescription drugs, especially for seniors. Both candidates praised the EPIC (Elderly Pharmaceutical Insurance Coverage Program), a prescription plan for senior citizens sponsored by New York State. Both felt that support for the program should be increased. Murray said that the state should use the purchasing power of programs like Medicaid, Medicare and HMOs to pressure pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices. Balboni proposed increasing the patent period to seven years, and in exchange getting the companies to agree to lower prescription drug prices. He said that he wanted to be sure that research and development continued to be funded adequately.
Joan Kent asked if either of the candidates had any suggestions as to how the state can get the budget out on time. Balboni responded, "Well, they [referring to the Democrats when they were in power] got it out on time, but we got it balanced." He agreed that a late budget places a hardship on programs that depend on funding from the state, pointing out that his own paycheck is delayed when the budget is not passed on time. Murray said that part of the problem is that the members wrangle for a long time about predicted revenues before they begin to decide on expenditures; therefore, he would favor appointing a joint budget committee that would agree on the projected revenue figures. He also proposed moving the fiscal year from April 1 back to June 1, adding that taking away the legislators' pay has not worked. Balboni pointed out that we do have a revenue forecast by the Comptroller, but it has not helped.
Bob O'Brien asked whether the candidates would be in favor of a light rail system for Nassau County. Balboni responded, "I think that's a phenomenal idea. It's ridiculous that we don't have this." He added that it would need to be linked with the railroad. He acknowledged that it would cost money, but said that the federal government has money for such projects. Murray disagreed, doubting whether the public would use such a system, and said that he would prefer that the money be spent on improving service on the existing railroad and bus lines. An audience member commented that Oslo has a wonderful light rail system where "you can get to anywhere from anyplace, and it really cuts down on traffic."
Murray said that his motivation for getting into the race was that he believes that the philosophical differences between the parties are important, especially now that the role of government is becoming more important. He described his background as a trial lawyer, a member of the Nassau County Open Space and Parks Advisory Committee, and a member of the Garden City Chamber of Commerce, as well as a number of other civic associations. Balboni said that he enjoys representing this community. 'I have been able to bring home the bacon," he said, pointing out that he has obtained over $300,000 in support for the library, the PYA, Lion's Field, the school district, and many other community organizations and projects.
In sum, the meeting provided a congenial forum for an exchange of information that will help the citizens of Port Washington decide how to cast their vote in November.