Debating for the second and final time before Election Day, Republican State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle and Democratic challenger Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming clashed in East Hampton on Monday evening, focusing in part on campaign finance reform and the state-mandated tax levy cap.
Fielding questions from the audience and the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, which sponsored the debate, as well as Bryan Boyhan, editor of The Sag Harbor Express, and David Rattray, editor of The East Hampton Star, the candidates addressed an array of topics, from coastal erosion to pension reform. Carol Mellor of the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons moderated.
Ms. Fleming repeated criticisms of the senator’s spending record, again accusing him of allocating $140,000 of taxpayer money to fund campaign-style mailers, which she displayed for the roughly 30 community members in attendance.
In response to a question about the need for more disclosure in campaign financing, Mr. LaValle said he supported such reform on the state level but opposed the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court decision from two years ago asserting that corporations and unions have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited amounts of money when supporting or criticizing candidates.
“I think, in some way, we have to take a look at that, but the court has spoken and I don’t believe that you can selectively say, ‘You know, I don’t like this Supreme Court decision, so we’re going to try to overturn that, but I like that one,’” he said. Mr. LaValle then added that federal lawmakers need to find a way to regulate Political Action Committees, or Super PACs.
Ms. Fleming, who has sponsored a resolution currently before the Southampton Town Board in favor of a constitutional amendment establishing that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as individuals, took the opposite stance. “When something is so destructive of the very fabric of the democratic process as the influx of unlimited undisclosed spending, we have to take action,” she said.
Mr. Rattray asked whether the candidates felt the tax cap was sustainable and fair, given the fact that municipalities can pierce it with a favorable vote from 60 percent of their boards, which he pointed out was easier to obtain than 60 percent approval of taxpayers when a school district opts to pierce the cap.
Mr. LaValle stood by his vote in favor of the tax levy cap, and said schools need to look toward consolidating and sharing services in order to save money. He said he has encouraged local school districts, most recently Tuckahoe and Southampton, to consider such a merger. The senator also stressed the importance of mandate relief, such as the state takeover of Suffolk County’s medicaid expenses.
When Mr. LaValle pressed her late in the debate, Ms. Fleming said she would have voted in favor of the cap only if it was accompanied by stronger mandate relief for school districts. She disputed that it allows towns to more easily avoid cuts, and said that the cap puts pressure and the burden on individual town board members. “I can tell you that there is a great deal of discomfort around the idea of even getting close to the cap,” Ms. Fleming said.
She was more cautious on the topic of consolidating school districts and said the State Legislature needs to create some type of incentive to encourage schools to merge or share services.
Both candidates agreed that pension reform would reduce the burden placed on school districts. Mr. LaValle touted his vote in favor of Tier 6 pension plan—legislation that Ms. Fleming said she was not fully familiar with when Mr. LaValle again pressed her on what her vote would have been. Under the new plan, state employees, including teachers, hired after April 1, 2012, will have to contribute more money to their health benefits and see a reduction in their pensions. Tier 6 also raises the retirement age from between 55 and 62 to 63.
Nearing the end of the debate, Mr. Rattray asked the candidates to address what he called the “600-pound gorilla in the room”: the role of the state in controlling coastal erosion and rising sea levels. Neither candidate offered a clear response.
Mr. LaValle said the issue is something he has been working on alongside State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and criticized the Long Island Power Authority for not being more proactive in establishing renewable energy sources to curb global warming.
Ms. Fleming spoke briefly about the importance of local waterways to the East End economy, and said she was undecided on a $24 million beach rebuilding project before the Southampton Town Board.