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New York State Assembly

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), right, faces Steve Weissbard in the race for New York’s 4th Assembly District seat. Photos by Desirée Keegan

There were areas of agreement and points of sharp contrast between incumbent Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and challenger Steve Weissbard (R) when they sat down together at the TBR News Media main office to discuss their qualifications and plans for New York’s 4th Assembly District.

Route 347 and its ongoing reconstruction was high on the challenger’s list of important issues. The traffic and congestion are intolerable and detract from quality of life for area residents, and the redesign has been flawed, Weissbard said.

“New York is known as the least free state, the most regulated state, the highest tax rate state. We’re bleeding industry.”

— Steve Weissbard

“We need to get rid of the lights and add a third lane,” Weissbard said. “There should have been more overpasses.”

The incumbent said he is pleased with the changes to Route 347. Englebright noted the history of the road, which was originally supposed to be leg two of the Northern State Parkway extending all the way out to Orient.

“It never happened and we have a roadway that was confused by historical events,” he said. “The first proposals put forth by the [Department of Transportation] — going back more than a decade — would have recreated the Cross Bronx Expressway. Then Senator Jim Lack and I rejected those proposals and asked for something better. The something better is in the works.”

Weissbard has ideas for improving the state economy, which he said has been contracting for the last 40 years.

“New York is known as the least free state, the most regulated state, the highest tax rate state,” he said. “We’re bleeding industry.”

The answer, he added, quoting President Ronald Reagan, isn’t more government, but less government.

Englebright offered a different perspective.

“I can’t help but notice that the largest employer is government — and the largest entity, in fact, is in this district: the State University of New York — the largest employer in the bicounty region,” he said.

He argued that its presence has helped our community weather deep recessions that have affected other areas on Long Island much more profoundly.

On Common Core, however, they agreed completely.

“I think it undermines the fundamental relationship between teacher and student,” Weissbard said.

His Democratic counterpart was equally critical of the federal program.

“In the past, teaching was seen as an art,” Englebright said. “Now it’s trying to be seen as a quantifiable, robotic-like activity.”

“In the past, teaching was seen as an art. Now it’s trying to be seen as a quantifiable, robotic-like activity.”

— Steve Englebright

They both said they would like Common Core to be scrapped for a system that returns control to local school districts and teachers.

Englebright said he hopes voters will return him to Albany for a thirteenth term. He stands on his record of accomplishment on behalf of his constituents.

“I have made promises [in the past] and I have kept those promises,” he said.

Although his record on environmental issues gets lots of attention, he named other legislation that made him proudest.

“That the pertussis [whooping cough] legislation I sponsored with Dr. Shetal Shah has, according to his data, reduced the incidence of this killer childhood disease by at least 50 percent since the law’s passage in 2012,” he said.

Weissbard said he would like to bring a new perspective to the Assembly.

“As a county attorney, as a prosecutor, I’ve been in charge of both the juvenile drug court and, at times, the adult drug court, so I’ve seen the war on drugs on the Island at point blank range,” Weissbard said. “It’s a lot of first-hand knowledge that I would love to bring to the state level.”

Spencer Rumsey, left, and Andrew Raia, right, speak about why they would make the best choice for Assemblyman in the 12th district. Photos by Desirée Keegan

N.Y. State Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) is seeking his ninth term in office, but Northport resident and senior editor at the Long Island Press Spencer Rumsey is looking to change the Assembly’s 12th district.

In an interview at TBR News Media’s main office, Rumsey said he is running because he believes his constituents need a change in leadership.

“I’m not a career politician, but I’ve always loved politics,” Rumsey said. “As a journalist, I’ve been covering these issues for years on the outside and now I want to try and fight them on the inside, because I decided words aren’t enough.”

Rumsey has worked at Newsday, the New York Post and the Long Island Jewish World. He said he believes he can do more in the majority as a Democrat than Raia can achieve in the minority.

Raia has been serving the district for the past 16 years, and said he has focused on improving the drinking water in the area, slowing the rising heroin crisis facing the North Shore, and cleaning up corruption in Albany.

“This year we did a lot for water quality up in Albany,” Raia said. “Northport Village is one of the few local governments that’s actually getting a million dollar grant. … I was very happy to help deliver on that.” The grant will go towards water and sewer improvements.

Raia also sponsored legislation requiring schools to periodically test their water supplies for lead contamination and provide funding for remediation, which would otherwise be costly to school districts. Lead in drinking water has become a national concern since the residents in Flint, Michigan, suffered from health problems after they discovered their drinking water was contaminated with lead.

Rumsey agreed Long Island should be looking to cut back the amount of nitrogen in the water supply with more sewer use.

“On Long Island, most homeowners don’t have sewers, they have cesspools,” he said, adding he would like to see an effort to increase the amount of sewers on Long Island.

Northport Village has been no stranger to the growing heroin problem, and Raia and Rumsey both had ideas on how to curb this issue.

Rumsey said he has been writing about this issue since he was at Newsday 30 years ago.

“It’s a medical problem and a criminal problem,” he said. “I’m more focused on treatment for addiction.” He said he finds a problem with clean needle exchange programs because they rely too much on trusting addicts to make safe choices, and would rather look towards increasing the amount of treatment programs available for North Shore residents.

Raia said he thinks heroin is one of the most pressing issues in his district.

“As the ranking member on the health committee, this is an issue that I take extremely serious,” he said. Raia said he has held classes to train residents how to use Narcan and worked with other members of the Assembly to pass a package of bills to increase the number of treatment beds and services in New York, as well as to reduce the prescription time frame from 30 days to two weeks.

The candidates also talked about problems with the New York State tax cap.

Raia said he believes the tax cap has worked well, but it is not “without its problems.” He said the behavior of large tax increases in towns and villages has been curbed thanks to the cap.

“The cap kind of suppresses the creativity that schools used to have,” Rumsey said, as part of the issues he said he has with the cap.

From left, Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright and state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie pose for a photo with historical documents. Photo by Giselle Barkley

He is not only the first African-American Speaker of the New York State Assembly, but also the first speaker to visit various districts on Long Island, as far as one long-standing North Shore lawmaker can remember.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) visited Setauket on Oct. 20, and met with residents and North Shore government officials, including Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket); Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station); and state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket).

“This happens about once every … well, it never has happened,” Englebright joked. “It’s pretty amazing.”

While touring the area was on Heastie’s agenda, his visit was also about getting better acquainted with the needs and concerns of residents in areas like Setauket, he said.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stands in front of Patriots Rock. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie stands in front of Patriots Rock. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“When members get up and speak in conference, when they talk about what’s important to them or where they want us to concentrate or try to do things in the budget … [visiting the districts gives] me a better idea of what they’re speaking about,” Heastie said in an interview.

Heastie was elected Speaker of the NYS Assembly on Feb. 3. Since his election, Heastie has tackled a variety of issues including education, homelessness, financial stability for families and minimum wage, among other areas of concern.

The speaker also has ties to the greater North Shore community, as he graduated from Stony Brook University in 1990 with a degree in science. State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) was recently named the Senate majority leader, making the North Shore’s presence strong in the state Legislature.

Although Heastie had limited time to mingle, Englebright guided Heastie around various areas in Setauket, touring the community’s coveted Greenway  Trail, and introducing him to the history of the region and the role it played in the birth of the United States, starting with Patriot’s Rock in Setauket, where the famous Battle of Setauket was fought.

Officials from Stony Brook University library were on hand to deliver the speaker a copy of a famous letter George Washington signed at West Point during the Revolutionary War.

“I used to teach political science and American history,” Heastie said. “So I’m kind of a history buff. It’s just something that was a little different than other parts of the tour, so this was nice — particularly with it being so close to the college that I graduated from.”

After learning about Long Island’s link to the Culper Spy Ring, dating back to the Revolutionary War era, the speaker stopped at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, followed by a visit to Gallery North in Setauket.

Throughout the visit, Englebright and other North Shore leaders used their time with the speaker to reiterate some of the region’s most pressing issues, including preservation and environmental sustainability. Englebright also reaffirmed Heastie’s desire to tour the districts as a means of helping those he represents and serves as speaker.

“He’s very interested in visiting the various districts and learning of what his members are working on,” Englebright said. “I’m one of his senior members, and I’m very grateful he wants to come out and see what are the things I’m really focused on in the district.”

Mute swans peruse the Setauket Harbor waters. Photo by Maria Hoffman

By Susan Risoli

Mute swans might soon have an easier relationship with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, if a bill recently passed through the York State Legislature is signed into law.

The legislation was written to require DEC to provide scientific documentation that mute swans are a threat to the environment. Also, before taking any action to control the state’s mute swan population, the DEC would have to hold at least two public hearings and give the public at least 45 days to comment on its plans for dealing with the birds.

The legislation package passed the state Assembly June 9 and had passed the state Senate on April 22.

Mute swans, a non-native species from Europe, are considered an invasive species, according to the state DEC. Trumpeter swans, also found in New York, are native to the region and are not included in the DEC’s management plan.

The agency’s proposed mute swan management plan, released in March, called for limiting the statewide population to 800 birds. By 2002, there were more than 2,000 mute swans downstate and 200 upstate, the report said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), chairman of the Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that the mute swan legislation was a response to public concern “that had been raised, particularly about the lack of appropriate science to justify this eradication of a very beautiful animal” that inspires “a sense of curiosity about the environment,” particularly among children.

In April, Englebright and Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz (D-Brooklyn), also a member of the Committee on Environmental Conservation, sent DEC’s Bureau of Wildlife a letter saying the agency disregarded the state Legislature’s requests for “full documentation of the scientific basis for management decisions” and requests for “less reliance on lethal management measures. The DEC has failed to provide compelling scientific information as to why such an aggressive management strategy is being pursued.”

DEC spokesman Jomo Miller said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the letter from Englebright and Cymbrowitz “as part of its review of the comments received” on the draft management plan. The DEC hopes to adopt a final plan later this summer, Miller said.

“At that time, we will provide a response to the principal comments received, as we did for comments on the first draft of the plan,” he said.

In an interview, Englebright said the legislation is “not just an exercise in willfulness on our part but an exercise in democracy,” and it reflects “a very high interest” from the public about the fate of the swans.

The legislation would require DEC to “give priority to nonlethal management techniques” for controlling the mute swan population. The proposed plan said it does not advocate any specific method of controlling the population, and because many people object to the use of lethal control methods, especially killing adult birds, the DEC will use “nonlethal” methods where practical and timely to achieve the management objectives, the report said.

Research shows that mute swans “can significantly reduce the availability of submerged aquatic vegetation in wetland ecosystems” depending on the number of swans relative to the size of the area being considered, the spokesperson said.

The DEC said in the draft management plan that mute swans hurt the environment by eating and uprooting large quantities of plants that are food for fish and other wildlife. Swan feces have high levels of coliform bacteria, which can make waters unsafe for drinking, swimming and shell fishing, the document said. Their presence near airports poses “a serious threat to aviation,” the plan said. It also said that territorial swans have been known to attack people and other birds.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo. File photo by Erika Karp

Just a few hours before the New York State Legislature approved the state’s 2015-16 budget, which includes a number of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform initiatives, school districts across the North Shore finally got to know how much aid they’ll receive next year.

The state aid runs showed districts getting more than they expected, since many budgeted around a 1.7 percent increase. Earlier this year, Cuomo (D) announced state aid would only increase by $377 million — a 1.7 percent increase from this year — if his state education reforms didn’t pass the Legislature.

And while not all of the initiatives passed, a few did, so the aid increased by about $1.4 billion statewide.

“This is a plan that keeps spending under 2 percent, reforms New York’s education bureaucracy, implements the nation’s strongest and most comprehensive disclosure laws for public officials and makes the largest investment in the upstate economy in a generation,” Cuomo said in a statement.

But not all were convinced the education initiatives would reform public schools.

The Education Transformation Act of 2015 amends the teacher evaluation system, changes the time to gain tenure from three to four years and creates two designations for failing schools. The hot-button item, though, was the teacher evaluation system.

Under the act, the State Education Department will develop a new teacher evaluation system by June 30, which school districts will then have to locally negotiate and enact by Nov. 15 in order to receive their allotted aid. The system also includes a component based on students’ performance on the state’s common core-aligned tests. The evaluation system was last changed in 2013.

In a phone interview on Wednesday morning, Middle Country Central School District Superintendent Roberta Gerold, who is also president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said she believed the change to the system was misguided, and wished elected officials would have learned that “rushing into a system that doesn’t have details attached” — as was the case in 2013 — doesn’t work.

Some Assembly members said they shared Gerold’s concerns.

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) voted against the Education, Labor and Family Assistance State budget bill, which Cuomo issued on Tuesday with a message of necessity. When asked about the reforms, Englebright immediately interjected, “they are not reforms,” he said.

He said he voted against the measure because it was unclear as to how it would impact students.

“[It] doesn’t mean we can’t make improvements, but those improvements need to make sense,” he said.

Englebright strayed from his fellow party members by voting against the bill, which he said was a difficult decision.

“The people who sent me [to Albany] are the ones who I finally had to vote in accordance with,” he said.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) said in a press release the education measure “takes away local control and is downright insulting to principals, administrators and teachers.”

While most North Shore Assembly officials voted down the education component, Mike Fitzpatrick (R- St. James) voted yes. In a phone interview Wednesday, Fitzpatrick said he stood by his decision.

He said he believed the reforms would bring more accountability to the system, which needed to be reformed. Fitzpatrick also said the amendments take away some of the New York State United Teachers union’s power. The union referred to the changes as a disgrace and the evaluation system as a sham.

“Good teachers, and they know who they are, they don’t have anything to worry about,” Fitzpatrick said.

Rohma Abbas contributed reporting.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright is putting pressure on the knocking down of Pine Barrens forrest in favor of a solar farm. File photo

A new bill protecting children from toxic chemicals is making its way through the state Assembly as elected officials work to keep chemicals out of children’s products.

The bill — commonly known as the Child Safe Products Act — would empower New York State to identify and phase out dangerous chemicals in products marketed to kids, lawmakers said. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) helped craft the legislation and has been pushing it forward with hopes of keeping young people safe from what they cannot see.

If the legislation is passed, the state would compile a list of high-concern chemicals made up of those known to cause health problems such as cancer, learning and developmental disorders, asthma and more, officials said.

Then, a list of priority chemicals used in children’s products will be drafted for disclosure, lawmakers said.

“This bill addresses issues of poisonous products for children,” Englebright said. “It’s very important to protect the children. And that’s what I intend to do.”

The makers of children’s products would also be required to report their use of priority chemicals in their merchandise after a year, and phase out their use of such chemicals three years later.

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said legislation like this is important because there is always a need to prevent innocent children from being exposed to such harmful chemicals like arsenic, mercury, cadmium, formaldehyde and more.

“Kids are more vulnerable and more likely to put things in their mouth,” Spencer said. “Almost any toy could potentially have toxic chemicals.”

Spencer also said toxic chemicals are found in many children’s products such as clothes, dolls, toys and more. He said they can be in found things such as paint on a button or a bracelet a child wears.

According to Englebright, there are some 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The federal law that was supposed to protect against them — the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 —  “is a very weak law and has never been updated,” the lawmaker said.

The assemblyman also said he feels a bill like this is important for everyone in the state as it sets the standards manufacturers would be held to.

“We all benefit when children are protected from poorly regulated toxic chemicals that have the potential to harm development, cause illness and impair learning,” Englebright said. “I think it’s very important to get this bill to the governor’s desk.”

Spencer also said while he does support the bill, there should be guidelines and parameters set as there is the ability to detect parts per million, billion and even trillion. He said it is unnecessary to be overly restrictive as something at a certain parts per billion or trillion, may not be harmful.

Late last year, a press conference was held in Hauppauge to show parents the toxins present in certain items geared toward kids. While many of the toys at the conference had toxic chemicals in them, such a Hot Wheels cars or dresses bought in Long Island stores, there are toys on the market that are manufactured without them.

“A lot of times the effects of these toxic substances aren’t seen right away. But the impact lasts for a lifetime,” Spencer said at the December conference.

When asked why certain toys have chemicals and others don’t, Spencer said some manufacturers may be unaware of the chemicals present and others could possibly use the chemicals to maximize profit.

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College is expensive. Actually, college is ludicrously expensive these days, as 60 percent of graduates from colleges and universities in New York are coming out of school with a debt of more than $26,000, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success.

With these numbers in mind, we support Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci’s (R-Huntington Station) push for increasing the maximum amount of financial aid awarded through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

While college costs have increased drastically over the last 10 years, there has been no substantial increase in the maximum TAP award a student can receive. Individuals can currently cash in a minimum grant of $500 and a maximum of $5,165 each year.

Lupinacci said he wants to raise the maximum to $6,470, while also increasing the maximum eligible household income from $80,000 to $100,000. We wholeheartedly support this measure, as the increases would better align with SUNY and CUNY tuition rates for in-state residents and the high cost of living in New York.

For the 2014-15 school year, a typical undergraduate student studying at a SUNY college will pay a little more than $7,500 for tuition and student fees. Add room and board, and that cost becomes about $19,600.

Raising the maximum TAP award would provide many students — who may be supporting themselves and working full-time — an easier pathway to obtaining their degrees. This program could be especially crucial to students who are on their own and may not have someone to co-sign a loan.

We often use the phrase “every penny counts,” and in this case it couldn’t be truer. The purpose of public education is to increase access to an important service. Increasing TAP will help further that goal.

State Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Assemblyman Chad Lupinacci (R-Melville) is calling on Albany to increase the amount of financial aid it awards college students through the New York State Tuition Assistance Program.

The hike is needed, Lupinacci said, because there’s been no significant increase to the maximum TAP award in more than 10 years. Lupinacci is calling for a 25 percent increase in the maximum grant amount.

TAP funding is a grant that is intended to help cover tuition costs at New York State universities and colleges. The minimum TAP grant awarded per school year is $500 and the maximum is $5,165, according to the program’s website. Lupinacci wants to raise the maximum TAP award to $6,470 and increase the maximum household income for TAP eligibility from $80,000 to $100,000.

“As a college professor, I see every day how important TAP is for thousands of students,” he said in a recent statement. “An increase in funding would give students the relief they need to hit the ground running after graduation.”

TAP is awarded annually to New York State residents who study at full-time colleges within the state. Students who receive the grant must stay in good academic standing and meet the income requirement. According to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) website, nearly 400,000 students across the state received a TAP grant in 2013.

Assemblyman Andy Raia (R-East Northport) has signed on as a co-sponsor to Lupinacci’s bill and said an increase in the funding and eligibility is definitely needed for students across the state.

“The price of public education has gone up tremendously in 10 years,” Raia said in a phone interview.

Raia said while $80,000 seems like a lot of money, given the cost of living it is not as much for a family of four living on Long Island when compared to the same family of four living upstate. He said the cost of living is higher here and the increase in a maximum award is greatly needed.

Lupinacci, who currently teaches at Farmingdale State College, said it is important to have this increase in an effort to ease the financial burden on students. He said it would help cover significant portions of tuitions at State University of New York and City University of New York schools, and whatever it could for private schools’ tuitions.

Currently, the bill that was introduced on March 5 is being referred to the Assembly’s Higher Education committee, where Lupinacci is a ranking member. If this bill is approved, Lupinacci hopes the increase kicks in beginning April 1, 2016.

The most recent TAP increase was for $165 back in 2014. Cuomo announced the increase, nearly 15 years after the last one. The bill also has a state Senate sponsor, State Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), who has not seen the bill, said he favors a TAP increase.

“I think it’s a great investment in young people, who are the future of our state,” he said in a phone interview.

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