Long Valley Neighbors Find Accord and Affinity Across Party Lines

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | September 21, 2017 | Politics
It’s more than just agreeing to disagree, this group of residents has thought through the candidate’s promises and proposals to find some surprising common ground

George Collins (left) and Neil Szigethy
In the third installment of this ongoing Voting Block series, we head back to Long Valley to listen in as these neighbors sift through the promises and proposals made by the major gubernatorial candidates, dismissing what they think won’t work and talking through what they think might. Voting Block is a collaboration of news organizations throughout the state and will continue to deliver insights and inside looks through the upcoming gubernatorial election. Follow this link to read the first and second articles in this series.

Among the group of 10 Voting Block members in Long Valley, there is skepticism about gubernatorial candidates’ campaign promises, disagreement on many issues that fall along party lines, but surprising affinity across party lines when it comes to other concerns.

[img-narrow:/assets/17/0612/1903]It can be especially hard for these Morris County residents participating in the statewide Voting Block project when they don’t agree. Several among the split group can be described as hyperpartisan and there is only one member who truly considers herself unaffiliated.

But despite that, there were some deep political discussions at last week’s meeting. And they found themselves in agreement frequently, if not about a candidate’s entire proposal than one aspect of it.

For instance, no one in the group, Republican or Democrat, finds Lieutenant Gov. Kim Guadagno’s proposed property-tax circuit breaker realistic. The Republican nominee plans to cap the school portion of the local property-tax bill at 5 percent of household income, up to a maximum of $3,000. She plans to pay for it largely through a state audit and future revenue growth.

Checking the cushions for change

Heather Santos
“I don’t care what kind of audit you do, you’re not going to come up with that kind of money in the cushions,” said Heather Santos, who recently registered as a Democrat after starting out as a Republican and spending most of her life as an Independent. “The only way to decrease what we are spending on schools is to consolidate school districts.”

That’s an idea that has come up before in group discussions, and it’s one on which everyone, regardless of party, agrees.

The group was also leery of Democratic nominee Phil Murphy’s proposal to create a New Jersey public bank. His plan is to have this nonprofit institution, operating independently and following commercial principles, be the depository of New Jersey’s public funds and then leverage that money to invest in communities, infrastructure, and small businesses, as well as providing loans to students.

Democrat George Collins said one positive aspect of the bank is that governmental entities would not have to “be paying money” to other big investment firms and bond houses.

“The question is, who runs this bank?” asked Santos.

“What happens if it goes bankrupt?” asked Gregg Forsbrey, a GOP township committeeman. “If the bank goes down, they will come to us to bail it out.

“There would have to be controls over it,” said Neil Szigethy, a Democrat.

Laura Knipmeyer, the lone Independent of the group, said she is uncertain. She would like officials to be able to cut ties with commercial banks, saying, “I think all politicians in the United States are beholden to the banking interests” because it is expensive to run for office and banks “have the money.” But she doesn’t know enough about banking regulations to form an opinion.

“I did not think Phil Murphy made his point well about the bank in the debates,” Knipmeyer said.

The group was split on the proposed legalization of marijuana, currently pending in the Legislature and supported by Murphy. Guadagno has said she supports decriminalization, but not legalization — and not along party lines.

Mixed feelings

Veronica Fernandez, a Democrat who is seeking a seat on the Washington Township committee this November, has mixed feelings. On the one hand, she sees it as a potential source of revenue for the state. On the other, she said she had heard that emergency room visits had increased dramatically. (Note: One study reported by Science Daily charted a nearly 400 percent increase in teen and young adult visits to emergency rooms, but a different report, by the Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee, found that the overall rate of marijuana-related visits to ERs dropped 27 percent.) She said she is “definitely for decriminalizing” pot.

“Is the money worth it?” Republican Barbara Penella asked.

“Did prohibition work?” retorted Carol Grobels, the Washington Township Democratic chair.

Talk of the financial planks of Murphy’s platform turned more partisan.

Murphy has called for fully funding the state’s ailing pension system and increasing public school aid, as well as other programs. To pay for his proposals, Murphy plans a number of tax increases, among them: a so-called millionaires tax, closing a business-tax loophole on corporations headquartered in New Jersey but with offices in other states, and a tax on fees earned by hedge-fund managers. He would also legalize, and then tax, marijuana.

‘Same old story’

Barbara Penella
“Tax and spend, it’s the same old story,” said Penella.

Discussion of an increase in business taxes brought similar unmoving views.

“We’ve lost a lot of businesses in New Jersey because of our taxes,” Penella said. “A lot of all our problems are based in taxes.”

“I have my own business … I guarantee you the percentage I pay in taxes is vastly more than any corporation pays,” said Neil Szigethy in response. Szigethy, a Democrat, is a self-employed copywriter.

When Republicans brought up the decision by several pharmaceuticals firms to move out of New Jersey, Knipmeyer, a former pharmaceuticals executive, said the reason for those relocations was more complicated. The pharmaceutical industry has evolved and its “center of gravity” has shifted to the Boston area because of the research opportunities presented by the large research universities in the region.

Boosting the minimum wage

Perhaps the longest debate, and greatest disagreement, was over Murphy’s proposal to raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Santos called the current $8.48 minimum in New Jersey “pathetic.”

“It’s for a minimum wage,” said Penella.

“A lot of people are working two jobs and still can’t make a go of it,” countered Santos.

Lotito said raising the minimum wage would drive businesses like McDonald’s to lay off workers and automate tasks like ordering and paying. He said some retailers cut back workers’ hours after the Affordable Care Act took effect so they would not have to provide them with health benefits — the law requires larger employers to offer at least minimal coverage to full-timers, defined as 30 hours a week or 130 hours per month.

“They are going to do that anyway,” Santos said.

Collins said the idea on an increase is to create a “living wage” rather than merely a minimum.

“It’s never been about a living wage,” Lotito said.

Strong unions used to negotiate wage increases for their members, and that would lead to salaries rising for nonunion workers, as well, said Santos. “A rising tide floats all boats.”

Raising the minimum wage to $15 would wind up pushing all salaries higher and that would lead to higher costs at stores and for just about everything, several Republicans responded.

Paying low-wage workers more would enable them to spend more, boosting the economy, Grobels said, adding that taxpayers are already paying that higher price through government-provided food stamps and Medicaid insurance.
“They are all going for food stamps,” Penella said of low-wage workers at Walmart.

“Walmart is telling them how to apply for food stamps” because it pays such low salaries, Grobels shot back.

Corporate tax reform

Lotito said corporate tax reform would encourage companies to create more jobs.

Grobels scoffed at that, noting the huge gap between corporate executives’ pay and that of workers. (One 2015 report found the average CEO gets 204 times more than the typical worker.

Knipmeyer said good companies will support their local communities and pay their workers appropriately, but being charitable is not a corporation’s top priority.

“The number one responsibility of a corporation is not to the employees, it is to the shareholders under law,” she said.

She said high housing costs have become the greatest barrier to being able to make ends meet, saying it costs more than $50,000 for a family of four to afford to live in the state. (The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the average annual income needed to afford the average two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey this year is $56,810.

Then Collins suggested breaking out a calculator to determine how many hours a week a two-parent family raising two children would have to work at the minimum wage to afford that. It’s close to 130 hours.

“That’s horrendous,” said Forsbrey. “Bosses have taken advantage of workers.” But he doesn’t necessarily support strengthening unions, saying that at one time, when he sought to join the electrician’s union, he was told he would have to pay “a $10,000 bribe” to get in.

There was clearly no consensus on what has been a polarizing issue nationally. But the group agreed on a somewhat related topic, providing more vocational education so those not interested in college will be able to get better jobs.

“It’s a path for some,” said Szigethy, a former English teacher who also taught vocational students. “The seniors in the vo-tech program were the most mature, most responsible …The fact that that has gone out of our school systems is a sin.”

“I remember being in school, I couldn’t wait to get into wood shop,” Lotito said.

“A lot of kids are just not academic,” agreed Fernandez.

“There is going to be a tremendous deficit” of skilled laborers if programs are not made more readily available,” Forsbrey added. “It takes years to learn that stuff. It’s insane how much of that is being lost.”