By Stephen J. Kotz
New York State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle, pointing to his experience and dedication to 1st Senate District voters, and Gregory Fischer, promising to battle corruption and bring a fresh way of looking at issues that have bedeviled the region’s economy for years, faced off at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons on Tuesday.
The event was moderated by the league’s Judi Roth, while Kathryn Menu, the co-publisher and editor of The Sag Harbor Express, and Judith Samuelson of the league, posed questions to the candidates.
“You have to be a good listener, you have to be a good communicator, and you have to make sure you are serving the people of the district you represent,” Mr. LaValle said in his opening statement, pointing out that he had done everything from secure funding for new crosswalks in Bridgehampton to serve as a sponsor of the original Community Preservation Fund legislation.
He said that protecting school aid and keeping the state’s 2-percent tax levy cap in place were both “critically important,” adding that cap had saved the district $500 million in taxes. Mr. LaValle also said he looked forward to the completion of the merger between Southampton Hospital and Stony Brook University Hospital as well as the construction of a new emergency clinic in East Hampton in the coming years.
“The theme for my campaign is to vote for a turnaround,” Mr. Fischer said, adding that he had enjoyed a long career as a business consultant. “When you ask retirees what their priority is for retirement, it’s moving,” he said. “When you ask half the people on Long Island what their priority is, it is moving. Something is wrong.”
Mr. Fischer said there was “an unsustainable financial paradigm for our government,” caused in part by what he said was rampant corruption and incompetence at all levels of government. Mr. Fischer said he had filed numerous lawsuits and compelled a number of school districts to comply with the law for awarding contracts. “I would hope being a senator would allow me to do a lot more of that,” he said.
He added that he had several “innovative ideas for stimulating the economy,” which include a call to add a second level to the Long Island Expressway and construct a tunnel across Long Island Sound, which has said would ease traffic congestion and increase the efficiency of local businesses.
Although Mr. Fischer said he respected Mr. LaValle “for his achievement on environmental issues,” he said it was time for new faces in Albany. “We have a real clear and present danger when it comes to economic issues,” he said. “The entire legislature is missing the talent necessary for an economic turnaround.” Not surprisingly, Mr. LaValle, who was first elected in 1976, said he did not favor term limits.
Mr. LaValle pointed to his top ratings from the New York Public Interest Research Group and his efforts on behalf of farmland and Pine Barrens preservation as well as his sponsorship of the State Tax Relief (STAR) program and his work to improve the state university system as reasons to keep him in office.
Both candidates said providing additional affordable housing was an important goal. Mr. Fischer called for the state and county to move quicker to seize abandoned “zombie” houses and put them up for auction as well as more financing programs to assist first-time home buyers and a tax on vacant houses and storefronts, which he said would encourage owners to rent them or sell them.
Mr. LaValle said he had sponsored legislation to provide tax breaks for first-time buyers and require that municipalities increase the percentage of affordable housing created as developments. He said he too favored programs that provide financing to first-time buyers.
“It’s a very tough issue because we need to keep our young people here to be involved in the ambulance, fire department and other things,” he said.
Both were also in general agreement that it would be wise for more school districts to consolidate. Mr. LaValle said that East Hampton Town residents might be better served if Montauk, Springs, Amagansett, and East Hampton were to merge into a single district, but he said it was easier said than done, and pointed to the failed effort to merge the Southampton and Tuckahoe districts. “It can be done, but communities what their own school, their own district,” he said.
Mr. Fischer said he not only favored school consolidation, but fire district consolidation as well. He said many eastern Suffolk County school districts are struggling and said they did not get their fair share aid, which he said was partially Mr. LaValle’s fault.
Both candidates agreed that more needed to be done to combat the opioid addiction epidemic. Mr. LaValle said he supported measures limiting painkiller prescriptions to seven days, called for greater funding for treatment and stricter enforcement against drug dealers who target the young.
Addiction “is a not a root cause, it’s a symptom of despair in society” because of economic hardship, Mr. Fischer said. He said the fast track to addiction is through the overprescribing of legal drugs, and said medical marijuana might be a solution worth examining.
When it comes to health care in general, Mr. Fischer called for a single-payer option and said “health care is kind of a mess right now.” He argued that more attention needs to be paid to wellness care, nutrition and similar issues.
Mr. LaValle said, “Obamacare has been a disaster. It’s just cratering all over the place.” He said it should be replaced with a system that continues to allow children up to age 26 to stay on their parents’ policies and coverage for preexisting conditions.
On the topic of wind power and other sources of alternative power, Mr. LaValle said he supported plans for wind farms off the shore of Long Island as well as increased solar power, although he said fossil fuels still played a role “because the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining.”
Mr. Fischer countered that large-scale projects such as wind farms were “the wrong place to put the money and the attention.” He said he favored more solar installations and small-scale projects that favor in-state contractors and lessen the influence of the Long Island Power Authority.
As one of the sponsors of legislation that would allow for a 20-year extension of the CPF and the use of up to 20 percent of future proceeds for water quality projects, Mr. LaValle urged voters to approve a referendum on the issue. Mr. Fischer, while acknowledging that water issues were growing ever more important, said he reluctantly supported the referendum but added he feared the fund could be subject to abuse at the hands of corrupt or inept lawmakers.