With the exception of legalizing gay marriage and reaching across the aisle, the two candidates for State Senate in District 18 agreed on little else during a debate at Young Israel of East Brunswick.
During the Oct. 15 forum between Democratic Assemblyman Peter Barnes III and Republican East Brunswick Mayor David Stahl, the two candidates found little common ground on how to reduce state property taxes, ways to fund education and the infrastructure, health care, term limits, school vouchers, and who was running the nastier campaign.
The debate, which drew 150 people, was cosponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County and the Orthodox Union Political Advocacy Center. It was moderated by center director Josh Pruzansky.
The Middlesex County district, which encompasses communities with significant Jewish populations, including East Brunswick, Highland Park, Metuchen, and Edison, generally votes Democratic.
The candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democrat running against Gov. Chris Christie.
Stahl, who was elected councilman and mayor as a Democrat but changed party affiliation shortly before receiving the Senate nomination this spring, is running on a ticket with Lisa Goldhamer and South Plainfield Councilman Rob Bengivenga. Stahl has been a trustee at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
Barnes was elected to the Edison council in 1996, serving until elected assemblyman in 2007. A practicing Catholic, he said he has worked with the Jewish community since his council days, when the Orthodox community sought his assistance in establishing the municipality’s eruv, or Shabbat boundary.
Barnes is running with Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan and Nancy Pinkin.
Stahl said he helped attract businesses to East Brunswick and held the line on taxes. Failed state policies, he said, created “a tax environment where businesses are afraid to move in,” raising taxes on already overburdened residents.
Barnes countered that the tax issue is more complex at the state level than at the municipal, particularly holding the line on property taxes, which are the highest in the nation. It’s an issue that has confounded governors of both parties and has been around for 200 years, he said.
Barnes cited his coauthorship of a bipartisan bill, signed into law by Christie, decreasing the allowable property tax cap for towns and school districts from 4 to 2 percent, while closing loopholes. The measure forces governing bodies to get permission from local voters for additional funds.
Barnes called for a constitutional convention to determine a funding mechanism for an “archaic” tax system whose “time has long since passed.”
Stahl cited a “philosophical difference” between the two; if elected, he said, he would “do the job” and “not pass it off to some constitutional convention.”
He said during his years as mayor he ran East Brunswick like a business, along the way streamlining the permit process for small businesses. He said his policies contributed to a three-year decline in the vacancy rate along Route 18 and reduced perks for employees.
The two candidates clashed over the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a tax credit-funded program that would provide scholarships to children in the state’s lowest-performing school districts, allowing them to attend the school of their choice, including private and parochial schools. The OU supports the act, in part as a “financial lifeline” for day school families of modest means.
Stahl said he supported it. “If you are sending a child to a failing school you are already telling him he doesn’t have a chance,” he said. “No matter what your zip code or family, you have to offer a child hope.”
Barnes said he opposed the scholarship act because he does not “believe the best way to treat our fellow citizens is by draining money. I believe draining funds from the public schools hurts everybody.”
However, to “even out some of the unfairness” burdening parochial school parents, he said he co-sponsored with Passaic Assemblyman Gary Schaer a bill that allows local school districts to assign special-needs students to parochial schools.