By MAX PIZARRO
Larry Casha and Jay Webber sat down at an Applebee’s Restaurant in Parsippany last year and told each other they wouldn’t let things get too rugged in their upcoming Assembly race. The two self-described conservative Jersey natives said they’d run a positive campaign, Casha recalls. Then the two lawyers shook on it.
Maybe Marquis of Queensbury rules are in effect and perhaps nothing’s been below the belt to this point but what’s very clear in this dist. 26 Republican Primary is that the punches are already flying.
Even millionaire developer Anthony Pio Costa’s in on the action — and Republicans say he was supposed to be the candidate who’s difficult to reach.
Not here in supposedly prim and proper Morris County, where four men are vying for two Legislative seats.
It started Tuesday when Webber charged Casha, a former Kinnelon Council President, with “rubber-stamping” a school budget that the voters had rejected.
“That kind of comment just shows Jay’s lack of experience,” Casha said in response.
Casha said out of the four years he’s been on the council, voters have rejected the school budget three times. The first time the council faced its constitutional responsibility of preparing a new budget, Casha says the governing body trimmed $240,000. The next year they cut out $799,000.
“We were able to do that without reducing programs or faculty,” he said
The third time, Casha said the town brought in an independent auditor, who cautioned the council about more cuts. Casha said given the significant cuts they’d already made a year earlier, he had no choice but to approve the budget, which resulted in a tax hike of 3.5 percent.
“To say that we rubber-stamped that budget is just incorrect,” said Casha, who added that after hearing Webber’s comments he wonders if the younger man will be able to live up to their Applebee’s agreement.
Webber, who ran a hard, losing campaign against State Sen. Robert Martin seat in the 2003 primary, on Tuesday repeatedly underscored his belief that Casha simply embodies more of the same tax-and-spend mentality rampant in Trenton.
As an alternative, “I offer my vision, my leadership, and my record – which compares very favorably to Mr. Casha’s record of raising taxes,” Webber said.
Casha said on the contrary, he’s “hell-bent” on cutting taxes, and wants an independent auditor to undertake a real assessment of the state budget.
Both Casha and Webber say they believe cutting some Abbott District schools from the rolls would translate into a significant tax-savings for New Jersey homeowners. Webber wants to act on an independent recommendation to the Legislature to go ahead and make those cuts. Casha suggests an auditor’s recommendation for cuts should go before the taxpayers.
“I believe in initiative and referendum,” Casha said.
Webber criticized Casha for not being able to make tough decisions.
Casha said he wants to stick to his agreement.
“Jay’s a nice young man,” he said Wednesday. “He might be serving someday in the Legislature with me.”
Meanwhile, Pio Costa, who says the state could solve the schools funding crisis and lower taxes by implementing an aggressive vouchers program, wasn’t content to let incumbent and prohibitive favorite, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, escape unscathed.
“Alex has been there too long,” said Pio Costa. “He’s a hell of a nice guy, but I believe in term limits. Trenton is a mess. The State of New Jersey is fiscally and morally bankrupt. Give me a shot. You don’t like it, put someone else in there.”