Two men are gearing up to do battle for the hearts and minds of voters before March 20’s special election for the 100th Assembly District. Former Assemblyman Frank Skartados, D-Marlborough, is running against Dutchess County Legislator John Forman, R-Beacon, for a seat once held by Tom Kirwan, who died on Nov. 28, 2011.
If either man wins, they’ll serve out the nine months remaining on Kirwan’s term.
The 100th Assembly District covers parts of Newburgh, Lloyd, Beacon, Poughkeepsie, Shawangunk and Marlborough.
Skartados and Forman did have some similarities, but differed on pension reform, job creation strategies and the minimum wage. Here is what they said they’d offer voters during an interview last week.
Skartados, a businessman from Marlborough, has already had one go-around as a state lawmaker in District 100 back in 2009 and 2010. He lost narrowly to Kirwan by 15 votes in an election that stayed in recount mode for months.
Now the Democrat is back and eager to regain his old position. Skartados said he’d like to work for the middle class.
“I believe that for too long our government has only worked for the wealthy, the well-connected and the special interests,” he said. “We need to end the huge tax breaks for the very rich and the big corporations and focus on policies that will benefit working families and the middle class — that’s what I’ll do if the voters return me to the Assembly.”
Up in Albany, lawmakers are considering raising the minimum wage from $7.50 per hour to $8.50. That’s something the Democratic candidate endorses.
“I am in favor of raising the minimum wage. I believe that someone who works full-time should not live below the poverty line. We need to reward work with a reasonable wage,” he said.
Skartados added that he believed that the go-to line that raising the minimum wage will hurt businesses was a ruse. “I think that’s a lie they tell to try and protect their bottom line at the expense of the employees. As a business owner, I’ve always paid higher than minimum wage because I know it helps keep employee moral high, which increases productivity and reduces turnover.”
Right now, Assembly members seem poised to reject Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Tier VI pension reform plan. That plan rolls back the minimum retirement age for state workers and forces employees to pay larger contributions into the plan. Like his former colleagues, Skartados said he had problems with going to Tier VI.
“As a former Assemblyman, I supported Tier V, which is projected to save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. That tier took effect only two years ago. I think it would be best to give Tier V a chance to take full effect before we can make any decisions as to how to move forward,” he said.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority payroll tax also didn’t sit well with Skartados, who called it a “job-killing tax” and said he’d work to try to eliminate it entirely if he got re-elected.
“When I was in the Assembly, I voted against the MTA payroll tax. I was a strong and vocal opponent of the tax both in the district and up in Albany,” he said. “I was happy to see that the tax was rolled back slightly at the end of last year, but I believe we need to go further.”
If elected, Skartados would like to push for well-thought-out budget cuts to help get New York State out of deficit land — “cuts that don’t jeopardize important services.” He’d also like to see the state work to create a more business-friendly atmosphere.
“We need good-paying jobs for residents. With that in mind, I support cutting taxes and eliminating red tape for small businesses and investing in our infrastructure to create immediate jobs. We also need more job training and effective job placement for residents.”
While they’re already in place through the federal Race to the Top program, and other changes by the Regents, mandatory teacher evaluations have been a hot topic for school districts — which have seen the requirement as an unfunded mandate.
Skartados said he does support teacher evaluations, given that children in New York should be able to compete with pupils all over the world. “Better teachers mean a better education for our children. And a better education will mean better opportunities for our kids when they graduate.”
In terms of property tax reform — a key taxation cost driver for homeowners throughout the state — the former assemblyman wanted to see some change. However, his suggested solution might not please diehard property tax reformers.
“I really understand this issue because I pay more per month in property taxes than I care to talk about. The simple fact is that the property tax is an unfair tax,” he said. “We need a circuit-breaker tax cap that will ensure that the less a homeowner earns in income, the less they will pay in property taxes. This will benefit seniors and families on fixed incomes.”
Mandate relief for local governments and school districts is currently in a holding phase as Lt. Gov. Bob Duffy and the Mandate Relief Council make a whirlwind statewide tour for public hearings. In Ulster County some local officials have expressed doubt about how serious Albany is with alleviating that costly problem.
However, Skartados said he does support mandate relief. “Unfunded mandates are a real issue,” he said. “If the state feels it’s important to mandate something on local governments, I think they should help us pay for it, rather than passing the burden down to the local taxpayer.”
In the end, the former assemblyman said he thought people should vote for him because he would legislate with their interests in mind.
“I’m not planning on going to Albany to make friends. I want to go to the Assembly to tell it like it is, stand up for what’s right and get results for Hudson Valley families,” he said. “This might make me unpopular in Albany, but I’m not afraid to ruffle feathers up there.”
Forman is currently serving his fifth term as a Dutchess County legislator representing the Beacon area. The Republican said unemployment was a key issue that inspired him to run.
“We need a strong voice to represent the mid-Hudson Valley. We need to get more private sector jobs in place — whether it’s new businesses or expanding current businesses,” he said. “We need more people employed in the private sector to balance our economy.”
The county lawmaker added that he saw a problem with the types of jobs available in the region. “We can’t have upstate New York be nothing but jails and schools.”
Minimum wage is not something Forman would focus on right away if he were elected. His priority No. 1 is to build business and create jobs at home. “Once we can get people who aren’t working as we speak back to work, maybe then I can support increasing a minimum wage.”
Forman said he worried that bringing it up to $8.50 could hurt businesses locally, which would likely make cuts instead of absorbing that new burden.
“I don’t think raising the minimum wage is the answer at the moment. I think the answer is getting more people back to work,” he said.
As far as pension reform, the Republican candidate likes the idea of Tier VI. “I’m definitely supporting it. If I’m up there and they haven’t voted on it yet, I’m definitely supporting it,” he said.
For local governments, carrying the extra pension payments has created a substantial cost. “As a county legislator, I can tell you that we have a budget of $411 million in Dutchess County — $20 million of that is going to the state to contribute to the pension.”
The MTA payroll tax is one area where Forman agrees with his opponent. He’d also like to see it go away entirely.
“Well it is a job-killing bill. I was happy to see a partial dissolvement of the MTA payroll tax,” he said. “What I really find offensive is that it’s upstate New York that has to pay the MTA payroll tax bill.”
Forman said he thought the state could do with more examination of wasteful spending.
“When my family, when my wife and I, when we add up our checks every week, every month and we’re spending more than we’re making, you have to stop, you have to find out where you’re spending your money,” Forman said. “I think the governor, fiscally, is on the right track in cutting some of the wasteful spending.”
The Republican from Beacon said he’d push for the state Attorney General’s office to track down fraud within systems like Medicaid.
According to the candidate, teacher evaluations are a good way to make sure that educators in class with children everywhere are held accountable.
“Listen, the State of New York spends more money on education than any other state in the United States. And the results that we’re getting rank us No. 38. So something has to be done,” Forman said. “Teachers … need to be treated like any other person, like any other sector position. We have to make sure that they’re doing what they need to be doing for the children.”
As an idea, Forman likes property tax reform — he just doesn’t know if the Legislature will ever swing for making income tax the method of funding public education.
“One of the ideas is that you pay based on your income. And it sounds like a great idea. Because, you know what, a mother and father raise three or four kids, they got a nice big house,” he said. “Those three or four kids grow up and leave. And we’re still hammering them for school taxes.”
Forman added that property tax probably wasn’t the fairest way to pay for education, “but the problem is New York City will never, ever, ever allow income taxes to be part of funding schools.”
However, the Republican hopeful said he’d be open to any good suggestions for changing the way the state funds education — no matter which side of the aisle they came from. “If it’s fair and it sounds right, and it’s common sense, I’ll be behind it.”
Forman enthusiastically supports unfunded mandate relief.
“I’m 100 percent behind it,” he said. “Again, as a county legislator, $411 million county budget, $125 million to $130 million of our budget goes to unfunded mandates. And basically, it’s the services that the State of New York that wants the county to provide without sending us the money to provide the services.”
The Republican was not sure how much support there would be for the idea in Albany, but he thought the state should figure out how to stop passing the buck.
When asked why people should vote for him, Forman pointed to his track record as a county legislator, saying he had helped cut taxes, consolidate departments and reduce wasteful spending.
“That’s what we’re doing in Dutchess County government. That’s what we’ve been doing in Dutchess County government. My opponent is a tax and spender,” he said. “I think people will identify with me as a tax cutter, and hopefully they’ll reward me with their vote.”