“I’ve been listening to you. You’re like a one-man band,” State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle admonished his challenger, Greg Fischer of Calverton, at a debate at the Hampton Bays Senior Center hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons on Thursday, October 25.
“I don’t think you realize you go here, you go there. You’re running around. I think you need to focus. I mean, I don’t want to sound like your parent, but you need to focus on one piece and try and effectuate a change on that piece.”
Mr. Fischer, a perennial candidate for office who is running for State Senate on the Democratic line, had just followed Mr. LaValle in answering a question about high property taxes, most of which are for school taxes, and what to do about the disparities in resources available to large and small school districts.
Mr. LaValle answered that it was an issue “guided by local control and we can push districts to consolidate until the cows come home but the ultimate choice belongs to the taxpayers in the districts that might be discussing this.”
“Yes, taxes are ridiculous,” Mr. Fisher said, adding that 52 percent of the New York State budget is for education, not including property tax revenues. Senator LaValle “actually controls a huge portion of the budget,” he said, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Higher Education and as a senior member of the Senate’s K-12 Committee. “Any reforms and pains, we know where to send our questions,” Mr. Fischer said. “After 42 years in office, Mr. LaValle has only made the problem worse.”
He went on to complain there is no “inspector general” for the Department of Education and that Mr. LaValle only recently had said he favored having one. “It takes 42 years to have that insight,” Mr. Fischer said, “and we have huge highly publicized waste and fraud and mismanagement” in state government.
He added that the state attorney general has to first defend the state bureaucracy “before they can prosecute” corruption, which he said — citing “the Buffalo Billions,” a reference to a controversial economic booster project featuring a solar panel factory for Buffalo promoted by Governor Andrew Cuomo — had spread to “such a cancerous level it comes to $850,000 per graduate” and is “out of control.”
“My head is spinning,” said the slower-spoken Mr. LaValle, “as I’m sure those of you listening.” He acknowledged his committee roles but added “our state is local control. We elect a school board and the school board runs the district along with a superintendent of schools. You know because you tried running for the local school board” in Riverhead in 2014, “to effectuate changes you thought were proper for that particular district.”
After explaining that “there are a lot of players,” including the commissioner of education, the Board of Regents, the state legislature, and the governor, he told Mr. Fischer he needed to focus on “one piece.”
“I think your motivations were right in running for school board to change things in a district; but I don’t want to sound like your parents, so …,” Mr. LaValle said, without finished the sentence.
“We can certainly learn a lot from a 42-year senior senator,” Mr. Fischer responded. “We do have local control,” including the right to call for a referendum by petition, which he said “is not well publicized.” He added there’s “a problem in terms of conflict of interest” because “BOCES people are now on school boards” and BOCES “is the biggest contractor to school districts.” He added he did not favor allowing BOCES costs to be excluded from the state’s 2-percent cap on annual tax increases and complained that “96 percent of school board positions are filled by the constituency of the teachers’ union.”
In his opening statement, Mr. Fischer, whose website describes him as a consultant to businesses, nonprofits and governments, said the major statewide problem is the economy. “We really need a turnaround. One of the problems we have is upstate where we’re losing population,” which is “costing us down here in the lower crescent” because downstate has “to pay the bills for upstate because they can’t pay.”
“As well,’ he said, “we have a compression problem because of a lack of industry up there where the population is still settling in the lower crescent. It’s a growing pain and it’s a problem. We have to go back to looking at senate and assembly people as statewide actors, not just pandering to their local constituency to get elected, but really becoming strategists and planners and showing some skill at developing and being responsible for the entire state.” He cited “waste” in government and “the Buffalo Billions calamity,” for which he said all senate and assembly people were responsible.
Mr. LaValle, in his opening statement, described how he opened the desk drawer in his office to find “a paper with my mother’s biography on it. My mother should have run for office. It wasn’t the right time for her and her life as a woman to do that but I saw many things in my mother’s biography that I chuckled about because she encouraged me to run for office and I laughed … She lived through me and the things I did and wasn’t shy about telling me I may have voted wrongly on one bill, or hooray” and “so forth.”
Before he ran, he said, he was a teacher in the Middle Country School District. “Teaching is certainly a love I have and working with young people, imparting information and learning from them as much as you teach them,” he concluded.
Both candidates opposed allowing convicted officeholders to receive pensions, although Mr. Fischer expressed concern about an “innocent spouse” and children “so it’s not as easy as it seems.”
Mr. LaValle said he had sponsored a first-time homebuyers bill to ease financing and taxes for first-time homebuyers; Mr. Fischer said the long-term answer to the affordable housing issue is to “fix the economy overall”; but in the “short run,” he called for processing foreclosed properties faster and he praised New York City’s housing built under the 1954 Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, saying it should be tried in designated areas here.
“This is not New York City,” said Mr. LaValle, “and to use Mitchell-Lama as an example just brought chills up and down my spine.”
Both candidates expressed doubts about the proposed Deepwater offshore wind farm. “The longer I look at it, the more questions I have,” Mr. LaValle said. Mr. Fischer called for “distributed power” and a reinstatement of tax credits and rebates to allow people “to free themselves from LIPA and these big projects.” He added we “need a tower law,” apparently so individuals could have their own wind turbines.
Mr. LaValle said state law enacted in 1973 protected women’s right to choose and he did not support “expanding that existing law” by adopting the proposed Reproductive Health Act. Mr. Fischer said he had been endorsed by the National Organization for Women and that he favored passing the legislation as critical to protecting women’s rights.
Both candidates opposed legalizing marijuana., “I don’t drink or smoke. I’m kind of as Boy Scout. I’m proposing big things for New York State,” including a capital infrastructure project featuring underground tunnels and magnetically-powered transportation systems. “I don’t want people high” when they drive through the tunnels, he said.
Mr. LaValle opposed drivers licenses for undocumented workers while Mr. Fischer said he agreed with Assemblyman Fred Thiele, who supports them, but added “I don’t want this to enable an underground economy.”
Mr. Fischer said it is “common practice in New York State to pillage” pension funds, which prompted Mr. LaValle to comment that “Mr. Fischer makes irresponsible statements. Our pension funds are protected” by the comptroller’s office. “People can sleep being assured all proper methodologies are being followed.”
Mr. LaValle said he might be willing to consider a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system “if I knew where the all the money was coming from.” Mr. Fischer favored it, calling access to health care a right.
Both candidates opposed the concept of “sanctuary cities,” where undocumented immigrants are protected from deportation. Mr. Fischer added “we need the labor” and that he’d seek to “facilitate the legalization of those populations.”
Mr. LaValle warned that, if Democrats take control of the New York State Senate, “the whole issue of sanctuary cities will be front and center and alive.”