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Candidates: Legislative District 16

Senate candidates agree on voter approval for charter schools but little else.

New Jersey’s public pension and health benefits cutbacks and taxes are among the issues in dispute among the candidates running to represent the 16th District.

The Senate race features incumbent Republican Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman against Democrat Maureen Vella. The Democrats for the Assembly, Marie Corfield and Joe Camarota, are challenging incumbent Assemblyman Peter Biondi and Jack Ciattarelli.

During a debate held last month in Princeton Township, Bateman and Vella disagreed on the pension bill passed last June that cut cost-of-living adjustments for retired government workers.

“You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game,” Vella said, an attorney, adding that the cuts denied retirees the benefits they had been promised. She accused the legislature of combining the cuts with a health care bill to deliberately avoid negotiating with the unions.

Bateman, who voted for the bill, said it was necessary to balance the state budget. “I supported the pension reform bill because, quite frankly, the state is broke, and we’re trying to preserve the pensions for the people who deserve them,” he said.

Bateman and Vella also disagreed on the proposed millionaire’s tax.

“I don’t think the millionaire’s tax is going to help our economy,” said Bateman, who said New Jersey should instead take other measures to become more business-friendly. “Just raising the tax of the millionaires is not the solution because we don’t want businesses and people to leave New Jersey.”

Vella supports the tax on the wealthy. “We have 16,000 people who earn over $1 million in the state of New Jersey. Each one of them is getting a $40,000 tax break. That amounts to almost $500 million,” Vella said, arguing that holding off on the tax for the past several years had not prompted job creation.

Candidates from both parties agree that charter schools should not be allowed to open unless they get voter approval from their community. This issue hit close to home in the 16th District, where a state-approved charter school is currently suing three school districts for stalling its opening.

“I think charter schools play a significant role, especially in districts that are failing,” Bateman said, explaining that he does support the governor’s goal of expanding the number of charter schools. “However, because they are receiving 90 percent (public) funding, I think the municipalities in which they’re being located should have a say.”

Vella supports a measure requiring the approval of voters not only in the municipality, but also in the larger area beyond municipal boundaries. “When you start putting in charter schools, it affects a lot of people,” she said. “We have good education here, and we need to take a look at how this is going to change.”

During the debate, the Assembly candidates disagreed on the state’s recent funding cuts to women’s health clinics.

Ciattarelli, a Republican Somerset County freeholder, said the cutbacks were necessary. “This is a different time and era. Everything is on the table. No decision is easy. People are out of work,” he said, adding that 52 women’s health clinics are still operating.

The Democrats disagreed.

“I was very sad to see the cuts that were made to women’s health clinics in the current budget,” said Corfield, an art teacher in Flemington, adding that the cuts had the greatest effect on women unable to travel to a further health clinic.

Camarota, a councilman in South Brunswick, called the cuts “a disgrace.”

Candidates from both parties were united against fracking, or hydraulic fracturing. Fracking is the natural gas-mining practice of using pressurized fluid to extract natural gases from rock. Environmental groups say the chemicals used in fracking could potentially contaminate groundwater and hurt air quality.

Fracking is currently under consideration by the EPA, and Gov. Chris Christie has proposed placing a one-year moratorium on it. Vella supports a ban longer than Chrisitie’s proposal to allow experts more time to study it. Bateman said he would urge the governor to place a permanent moratorium on the practice.

Candidates from both parties agree in supporting a proposed Blue Acres program, which would allow municipalities to buy out flood-prone homes from homeowners.

Biondi, of Somerville, missed the debate due to a death in the family. He has been in the Assembly since 1998 and has served as the Republican conference leader for the past five years. He won re-election in 2009 with more than 62 percent of the votes.

Patience Haggin is a student at Princeton University. She writes about community politics in Princeton for The Daily Princetonian.

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