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Fourth Assembly District: Englebright v. McKee

October 28, 2010 | 06:05 AM
Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) is running for re-election against Republican challenger Deborah McKee of Mount Sinai. The candidates met face to face in the offices of TBR Newspapers this week to debate the issues facing voters in the 4th Assembly District, stretching from Stony Brook to Mount Sinai.

McKee is a 31-year resident of Mount Sinai with two grown children educated in Suffolk. She is a homeowner and small business owner who also works as a 911 emergency dispatcher. She fears for the economic future her children and all young people growing up on Long Island.

"It's obvious to all," the soft-spoken McKee said, "the opportunities I had no longer exist." She cited the high cost of higher education leaving student loans "saddled to your back" upon graduation and the high cost of housing, together forcing many young people to leave the region.

"Jobs are leaving" also, McKee said. "New York State is the most tax-unfriendly state of all."

Englebright opened by noting his education and training as a geologist — "the only trained scientist in the Assembly," he said — giving him the ability to understand "technically complex issues" such as the environment and hydrofracking, an issue taking center stage in New York now. Englebright also touted his record of acquisition and preservation of land, including bike and hiking trails and open space, and efforts to protect people with his ban on BPA in baby bottles and children's cups, now a "national issue," he said.

Englebright said he voted against the MTA payroll tax that has engendered such vehement resistance in Suffolk County and McKee said she would have voted no as well. Englebright criticized the MTA's "wasteful practices" and suggested congestion pricing in Manhattan would have been a preferable means of raising funds for the cash-strapped MTA.

McKee said the MTA "should be held accountable" for its huge payroll and inefficient practices. She vowed to repeal the tax if given the opportunity. McKee took the opportunity to criticize the practice of many state agencies which she said make sure they spend every penny of their funding each year to assure themselves of receiving at least as much in the following year's budget. "Use it or lose it by December has to go," McKee said.

The challenger is opposed to the alternative plan supported by Englebright. "Congestion pricing hurts businesses in the city," McKee said. "You 'get' the little guy" who may work on Long Island but travels to Manhattan for business.

Englebright offered that some "dedicated funding stream" is needed by the MTA to provide for its "enormous capital investments." And he noted the necessity of public transportation not only for the obvious reasons but as protection against losing federal highway aid. With highway funds tied to environmental measurements such as air pollution, Englebright said those federal funds could be in jeopardy if even greater use of private cars further diminished air quality in the metropolitan area.

McKee said she supports small business tax incentives to stimulate the economy and promote job creation. "When people earn a good salary they can afford to pay their taxes," she said.

Englebright said his efforts to preserve and expand employment include his bill signed only last week by Governor David Paterson to promote the solar power industry. He said the measure will provide "a giant boost to installations and thousands of new jobs." When pressed by McKee the assemblyman explained the bill starts a process that eventually could lead to significant growth in the residential solar industry, although study and cooperation by local municipalities remains to be accomplished.

Englebright also touted his unrelenting support of the state's park system and his fight with Gov. Paterson to keep all parks open. He said every dollar invested in state parks returns $5 in economic activity. "To close the parks," Englebright said, "would be a huge mistake. And it saved 20,000 jobs."

"Go forward very carefully," McKee responded to the question of hydrofracking in the southern tier of upstate New York. Proponents have claimed there is sufficient natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, stretching from this state through Pennsylvania to Ohio, to largely replace the need for dirtier carbon fuels such as coal and oil. But environmentalists and others have cited the danger to groundwater and surface pollution as possible results of widespread drilling.

"I do not favor the use of the technology," Englebright said, despite the potential for cleaner fuel and many jobs. Stating there are "40,000 wells already" in New York, he said, "The experience has not been a happy one." Englebright said he feared a "juggernaut" is being created by the industry to approve widespread drilling and he called the sacking of DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis last week by Gov. Paterson a "sinister" side effect of that effort.

Both candidates indicated their support for consolidation of school districts to save education dollars and thereby reduce the rate of property tax increases. However McKee also warned that "local control" of the schools should be maintained. The incumbent and challenger also agreed on the necessity of state Medicaid reforms, a cost that at over $55 billion has surpassed education as the largest single item in the annual state budget. Both candidates indicated support for fingerprinting as a deterrent to Medicaid fraud, although Englebright said New York City Democrats, who represent a majority in the Assembly, oppose the measure.

Another issue on which the candidates agreed was a preference for repowering the National Grid power plant in Port Jefferson.

"It is feasible," said Englebright, adding, "If they abandon the site the cleanup would cost more than repowering."

An area of disagreement arose on the topic of tuition at SUNY schools, particularly at Stony Brook University. Chancellor Nancy Zimpher is strongly promoting a reform to allow SUNY's four flagship campuses, SBU, Albany, Binghamton and Buffalo, to free their tuition rates from state legislature control.

"Unshackle Stony Brook," said Englebright. "A tuition differential is OK." McKee questioned the incumbent's position.

"Our local tax dollars subsidize the system," she said, "but local students don't benefit." McKee said before tuition is increased, incentives and tax breaks should be provided "so middle-class children can go to school here."

Englebright said he has assurances that private donor grants would be made available to SBU students to offset any tuition hikes associated with Zimpher's proposal.

"I won't be comfortable until I see it in writing," McKee replied.

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