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Smith, Levine Face Off in First Senatorial Debate

Variety of topics covered in Spring Hills debate

It was billed as a debate between the two state Senate candidates for the 17th Legislative District, but it ended up being more of a policy discussion.

To be sure, there were differences in the stands taken by Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Smith and his Republican challenger, township Mayor Brian Levine, but there was none of the fireworks one might expect at a political debate.

The two candidates appeared at the SpringHills assisted living center on DeMott Lane before an attentive crowd of about 50 center residents. There was a moderator – Anthony Mento, Sr. – but rather than ask his own questions, Mento picked from a number of questions written down by the center’s residents.

The topics ranged from high taxes to same-sex marriage to how good a job Gov. Chris Christie is doing. Smith and Levine disagreed on most all of them.

The questions also gave the candidates chances to crow about their accomplishments as elected officials.

In answering a question about what they would do to protect the environment, Smith noted his sponsorship of the Highlands Preservation Act, which he said protects drinking water for 5.5 million residents, enhancements to recycling laws and passage of what he called the toughest fertilizer law in the United States.

Levine noted that he was a Township Councilman at the start of the township’s land preservation campaign. He also took credit for stopping what he called a “terrible project” on Route 27 which entailed a “major box store” and 600 housing units.

The two were also on opposite ends on the question of how to slow the increase in property tax rates.

“You have to stop spending so much,” Levine said. “There is too much waste.”

“Town, state and federal governments think they’re playing with Monopoly money,” Levine said. “If it’s there, they spend it.”

Noting that 65 cents of every tax dollar gos to fund public schools, Smith said education spending needs to be lessened.

“Somebody explain to me why we need 600 school districts in New Jersey,” he said.

Smith suggested a county school district model would be better for the state.

“You can streamline property taxes and sometimes lower them” if you get a handle on school costs, he said.

When asked what legislation they’d sponsored or endorsed that would help senior citizens, Smith said that he voted to establish a state health care exchange, as provided for by the federal Health Care Reform Act, but which was vetoed by Gov. Christie.

“Keep the taxes down, stop the crazy spending,” Levine said. “I think what we can do is be cognizant of you, your funds and the needs that you have.”

Smith said he favored a law recognizing same-sex marriage in the state, while Levine said the current civil union system serves same-sex partners well.

As for grading the record of Gov. Christie Smith gave him a “c-minus,” but Levine maintained there was no other person he’d want in the governor’s chair in an emergency.

In summing up, Levine said his “history is bipartisan leadership. Integrity is big with me, you know you can trust me. You can trust me with your money, you can trust me with your government.

“I’m going to help you, I’m going to help your children and your grandchildren,” he said. “They need jobs, they need confidence.”

In his summation, Smith said he would do more to stimulate alternative energy, find a stabilized finding source for open space, and work to turn the 17th District into an “innovation zone that will bring great jobs and provide great health care for everyone.”

For more on the candidates’ views, see the video.

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