By Claire Walla
The League of Women Voters of the Hamptons hosted a debate on Monday, October 25, between State Senator Ken Lavalle (R) and his challenger, Jennifer Maertz (D.) While LaValle took the opportunity during the event to tout his 34 years in office, making special note of his efforts to preserve thousands of acres of land and provide significant tax credits for residents on the East End, Maertz looked to criticize LaValle’s 17-term career throughout the evening.
On three occasions, she drilled into the senator’s voting record, saying LaValle has voted against ethics reform in Albany and against protecting women’s healthcare workers. LaValle denied both claims. She also accused LaValle of voting for the 2005 bailout of the Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA), which she called “the poster child for dysfunction in New York.”
Once again, the senator deflected this claim, and said instead that he in fact voted against the MTA payroll tax.
“The MTA [payroll tax] is not working and I’ve said consistently that it needs to be eliminated,” he said. LaValle further argued that the East End of Long Island needs to develop its own transportation system, independent from the MTA.
The only area where Maertz and LaValle actually agreed to disagree was on the topic of gay marriage.
LaValle said his vote falls in line with Washington; he is against same-sex marriage, but supports civil unions.
Maertz, however, was more direct: “I unequivocally support marriage equality,” she said. “It is a civil right and I would not support a referendum [against it], just as I would not support segregation,” she added.
The one issue both candidates agreed on concerned the Shinnecock Indian Nation. When asked about the Shinnecock’s proposed plan to build up to three casinos on Long Island, both candidates opposed the idea outright.
In fact, Senator LaValle said, “I did not support the Shinnecock Nation [gaining federal recognition] because I thought it was about gaming,” which he said “is not in the best interest of the people of the first district.”
Maertz added, “While I understand the arguments in favor of casinos, I don’t think they’re feasible on Long Island.”
The debate, which was moderated by Joseph Shaw, editor of the Southampton Press and Bryan Boyhan, publisher of the Sag Harbor Express, also included a question on this election season’s hot topic — jobs.
LaValle referenced his past efforts to boost the East End work force by investing state funds in Stony Brook Southampton and supporting the Empire Zone program, which gave tax breaks to small businesses, though this has since been replaced by a new economic development plan. Moving forward, however, LaValle said he would focus on the need to “reduce spending, taxes and regulation” and bring more research-oriented jobs to the area.
But Maertz criticized the Empire Zone program by saying, “We need bigger solutions.”
On education, the candidates agreed that the federally mandated No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program is not working. But, while LaValle argued NCLB allows the federal government to control decisions that should be made locally, Maertz made sure to emphasize the point that NCLB isn’t working because it is an unfunded state mandate.
“We’re educating 17 percent of school children in New York, but we only get back 12 percent in state aid,” Maertz said of education on the East End.
She added, “We need a solution to the sky-rocketing tax formula,” which, she said, under Senator LaValle has seen property taxes rise by 550 percent. However, as to whether or not schools should take their public funds from income taxes rather than property taxes, Maertz said, “I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best option, but I’m open to it.”
Senator LaValle said he is in favor of switching the school-aid formula to include income taxes rather than property taxes. But, as “the implications can be harsh,” he added, the proposal would need to place a cap on income tax.
This discussion came after both candidates agreed property taxes on the East End are too high. While Maertz criticized Senator LaValle for being in office 34 years and failing to curb rising property tax costs, LaValle pointed out that he has supported the effort to set aside affordable housing units in 10 percent of each municipality, making it easier for first-time homeowners to buy in the East End, a detail Maertz actually said she agreed with.