Senate hopefuls air views on ethics, taxes and more


Staff Writer

Brian UngerBrian Unger

WEST LONG BRANCH — The candidates running for the State Senate from the 11th District shed some light on their stands in their debate at Monmouth University.

Green Party candidate Brian Unger of Long Branch and Republican incumbent Joseph A. Palaia of Ocean generated some heat as well.

The debate, sponsored by the Political Science Cub and the university’s chapter of Pi Sigma Alpha, the national honor society for political science, brought all four candidates — Democrat Paul X. Escandon of Loch Arbour and Libertarian Emerson Ellett of Ocean joined Unger and Palaia — together for a 90-minute question-and-answer session in Howard Hall.

After Palaia responded to a question on the need for ethics reform in state government by pointing at his own record of avoiding conflicts of interest and eschewing personal gain, Unger took the 14-year incumbent to task for not showing leadership on the issue.

Joseph A. PalaiaJoseph A. Palaia

The Green Party candidate chastised Palaia for not coming out strongly enough against such common practices as dual office holding and no-bid professional contracts and his failure to hold State Senate Co-President John Bennett (who represents the neighboring 12th District) to the same high standards he maintains for himself.

A visibly upset Palaia responded that he did not feel it was appropriate for him to harshly criticize his longtime friend.

Unger quickly responded, "It takes guts to say tough things to your friends, but sometimes your friends really need to hear from you."

Both Escandon and Ellett called for reforms to many common but ethically questionable practices in government, but Escandon demurred on ending no-bid contracts for professionals.

Emerson EllettEmerson Ellett

An attorney and a member of the governing body in Loch Arbour, Escandon said requiring municipalities to go out to bid on professional services would result in young and inexperienced attorneys, accountants and engineers making low-ball bids just to get the work. As a result, Escandon said, the quality of the municipalities’ representation would go down significantly.

Ellett suggested that an independent ethics council should be created, as well as expanding on the open public records act which currently specifically excludes the Legislature.

All four candidates acknowledged a significant and growing problem with high property tax rates in the district and all four offered different approaches for dealing with the issue.

Ellett made it clear in his opening remarks and throughout the debate that he viewed tax matters as the central issue in the district.

Paul X. EscandonPaul X. Escandon

He suggested several means of reducing the tax burden, including a property tax credit for seniors, and said the state needed to consider reducing taxes on savings and capital gains as well as property. To allow for such cuts he called for the state to draw up a plan to reduce its deficit.

Both Escandon and Palaia said a state constitutional convention on the issue of property taxes was needed, though neither said what they expected to come out of such a convention.

Unger has endorsed a plan put forward by Republican Senator Thomas H. Kean Jr., to cut the share of county property taxes by eliminating much of the work done by county government. He noted that county taxes have risen sharply in the last five years and said that with 70 different departments, the county government was filled with patronage jobs that provide little service to the community.

In response to a question about the state’s lack of affordable housing, Palaia said he supports putting more dollars toward filling that need.

Unger was critical of the current mechanism for providing affordable housing, saying the system contains loopholes that allow towns to skip out on providing affordable housing in their communities. He suggested raising the minimum wage and creating some type of rental support as possible means to put a dent in the crisis.

Escandon called for more investment in mass transit and rebuilding urban communities such as Long Branch and Asbury Park, as a means of providing affordable housing and preserving the state’s dwindling open space.

Ellett struck a chord with the audience on the issue of car insurance reform. He credited Gov. James McGreevey with making progress on lowering auto insurance rates and said the state needed to look beyond its borders for an answer. "We need to model our system on the ones used in the lowest-cost states," Ellett said.

Answering a question regarding the state giving legal standing to same-sex civil unions, Palaia was the only one of the four candidates to withhold an endorsement of the idea.

"These things never came up in the Legislature" said Palaia. "I don’t approve of it, but to each his own."

Both Escandon and Ellett offered measured support for the idea, but said there had to be some safeguards put in any bill to protect against insurance fraud.

Unger fully endorsed creating a legal right to same-sex civil unions. He said the term marriage might not be appropriate to describe the unions, but an enlightened society should not be denying rights to people on the basis of sexual preference.