Juan Vides challenges Melissa Miller in the 20th Assembly District

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For the third time in four years, the Assembly race in the 20th District is an open and contested battle, as Juan Vides, an Oceanside businessman, and incumbent State Assemblywoman Melissa “Missy” Miller, a Republican and an Atlantic Beach resident, are the major party candidates.

The Herald asked Miller and Vides questions focusing on issues vital to the residents of the 20th A.D., which encompasses Atlantic Beach, Cedarhurst, Hewlett, Inwood, Lawrence, Woodmere, Long Beach, Lido Beach, East Rockaway, Island Park, Oceanside and parts of Valley Stream. 

Herald: What plan would you propose for the state to collect the most online sales tax money possible?

Melissa “Missy” Miller: Currently, there is an uneven playing field in New York, because online retailers can ship goods into New York without collecting sales tax, placing our brick and mortar stores at a competitive disadvantage.

These are the stores who support our schools and organizations and who employ our residents.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Wayfair case paved the way for states and localities to even the playing field by having the companies that operate out of state, but selling significant goods in the state, to be required to remit the proper amount of sales tax.

The law in South Dakota is a good example and would best ensure that a program would withstand a constitutional challenge. The law requires sales tax to be collected if a business performs 200 transactions, or over $100,000 in a year. This presents a fair balance to ensure that major retailers collect the tax, while exempting smaller businesses who may find it difficult to navigate New York’s sales tax program.

Juan Vides: With some, but not all, online retailers paying taxes on internet sales, an inequity exists in New York, which has also affected local small businesses.

We must impose an Internet Fairness Conformity Tax to ensure all online retailers are being taxed. It must also require large online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay to collect sales tax on transitions between residents and all third-party vendors, which will help level the playing field for brick-and-mortar stores.

Herald: Students opting out of the state tests remains an issue on Long Island. What could be done to reduce opt-outs and show people that the exams matter?

Miller: The situation that we are in currently, where such a high number of students opt out of taking the exams, is one that was completely created by the New York State Education Department.

This high-stakes testing was forced upon the students before the teaching materials were even prepared for the educators.

The problem was exacerbated when Gov. Andrew Cuomo insisted that the tests be tied to teacher evaluations. This system was extremely flawed in that various factors weren’t taken into account at all, such as whether students may have learning disabilities, developmental or cognitive disabilities or came from districts or areas with economic challenges.

In order for the opt-out number to be reduced, I feel the tests need to be decoupled from evaluating the teachers and students. The tests that have been administered have been highly flawed and poorly prepared by private companies.

The tests should be composed by New York state teachers who intimately know the curriculum and are in the best position to prepare tests that can be useful tools to determine whether students are truly learning and mastering the material taught to them.

While I absolutely support higher standards of education, I will continue to advocate for reforms to protect both the students and the teachers, by ensuring that the flawed tests do not count against their records.

Vides: The state must decouple teacher evaluations and students’ score on standardized tests and return control back to local districts. This will allow teachers to grow and meet the unique needs of their students because not all students have the same learning styles.

Herald: How would you help ensure that funding comes through for residents and resiliency projects to protect against future storms?

Miller: This Assembly district was devastated by the effects of Superstorm Sandy and there are still far too many residents today who have not yet been able to return to their homes. There needs to be a full accounting on how the money from NY Rising was not only spent, but how the entire program was administered.

We need to learn from the mistakes of the past so we can prepare for the future. Upgrading our infrastructure is the first line of defense against future storms. I supported legislation that will address this. The Clean Water Infrastructure Act created programs that will provide $2.5 billion over five years between 2017 through 2022 to improve the state’s ability to have clean water and the most efficient infrastructure system.

I also supported $750 million in disaster relief aid, which can be used to recover from manmade or natural disasters if they occur. I would also support similar programs that the state has enacted in the past that provides a real property tax assessment reduction on damaged properties.

Resiliency programs for the future will require coordination from the local, state and federal government. Specific projects must be developed with timeframes so funding can be identified and provided.

Vides: Our region knows all too well the destruction and devastation caused by storms. I will work with the state insurance commission to make sure that insurance companies are doing right by residents. If not, I will move to have their certification to do business in New York state rescinded. There are ways that the state government can put pressure on insurance companies to make sure they live up to their contracts and obligations — and with the assembly district’s proximity to water, these measures must be taken if needed.

Herald: How do you intend to fight corruption in Albany? Do you think recent ethics reforms in the State Legislature go far enough?

Miller: Corruption in Albany continues to erode the public’s confidence in government.  A step was made in the right direction when the public overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment to strip pensions from officials who commit crimes in their official capacity. Further reforms are needed. 

Real reform will not occur until we have term limits on how long individuals can hold office. There should also be limits on how long a legislator can serve as a legislative leader or committee chair. There are certain committee chairs who have held that position for decades! That becomes not only stagnant but allows for corruption to take place.

We need to create budget transparency requiring any discretionary spending request or member item to be an itemized and named appropriation.

We need to prohibit using campaign funds for criminal attorney or legal fees, require the forfeiture of unspent campaign contributions from elected officials convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties, and create a new crime of failure to report corruption. All of this is part of the Public Officers Accountability Act, which I fully support and co-sponsor.

Vides: The recent ethics reforms in the State Legislature do not go far enough — and people are tired of seeing their elected officials walk out of [police] cars and courthouses.

We must ban the pay-to-play culture in Albany by prohibiting and punishing those who steer public contracts or funds to benefit themselves or those around them. We must, once and for all, close the LCC (limited liability companies) loophole so wealthy donors cannot contribute unlimited funds to candidates.

We must also create a database that is public and lists companies that receive state subsidies to promote transparency. We must also cap “soft money” contributions and implement term limits.