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Mass. Governor candidates air views in labor forum

Martin Desmarais
Mass. Governor candidates air views in labor forum
Democrats running for governor took part in a Service Employees International Union forum on Saturday. (l-r) Joe Avellone III, Don Berwick, Martha Coakley, Steve Grossman and Juliette Kayyem.

The five Democrats gunning for the governor’s office were in Dorchester on Saturday for a forum held by the Service Employees International Union at the organization’s headquarters and all candidates pledged to be labor friendly and offered different ways to pay for the state’s needs from increased taxes to boosts from growing the economy to savings from health care reform. The candidates also addressed the hot topic of immigration reform.

The candidates wasted little time as the forum kicked off and jumped right into one of the main issues facing any new governor and the one on the mind of many voters — taxes and the state’s revenue.

Gubernatorial candidate Steve Grossman, the current Massachusetts’ treasurer, said that the state’s revenue, which is tied to the taxes it brings in, can see a big boost with an emphasis on improving the economy.

“The best way of course is to grow the economy,” Grossman said. “As you grow jobs and grow the economy you grow revenue and invest. So growing the economy is the best way to do it.”

He also suggested that the state rely more on public-private partnerships and the state’s business community to help fund some of the crucial priorities Massachusetts has, such as education and infrastructure, as well as looking for ways to save money in the current budget and repurpose the savings to pay for other areas. However, he did not rule out raising taxes.

“I certainly will not take revenue off the table, but if we go the route of revenue, and there is a strong case that can be made for that, we have to make sure that low- and moderate-income families are protected from any increase,” Grossman said. “That means increasing exemptions or changing the circuit breaker for property taxes or increasing the earned income tax credit.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley agreed with Grossman that the economy is the main priority that would increase the state’s ability to fund its priorities and she also said taxes are a viable avenue for increasing state revenue.

“I think that this is a state where people are willing to pitch in and invest in things they care about,” Coakley said.

In her pitch to be the state’s new governor, she also acknowledged that some of the blame for current funding issues lies with the state’s political leaders and the inability to push through the necessary money for important priorities.

“When we haven’t got the funding to deal with things we care about, it is because we haven’t made a good case,” she said.

She pledged to work with legislators, nonprofit organizations and private business to ensure the funding for the state’s needs are met. “We will invest the money we need to and we will get everybody behind it,” she said.

Candidate Don Berwick, a former administrator of the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, said he would push for a progressive income tax.

“I favor a tax system in this Commonwealth in which people at lower levels of income have lower rates and people at higher levels of income have higher rates. I will fight for that,” Berwick said. “It is simply fair. If we fail to invest in our schools, in our roads, in our energy economy, if we fail to offer entrepreneurs innovation funds so they can get going to create jobs in this state, if we leave people behind we will not have the Commonwealth, the community, that we want to create.”

Berwick also finds fault with the current tax system and said a major way to increase state tax revenue would be to fix current loopholes and tax incentives that cost the state millions in lost revenue.

“Loopholes and exemptions should only be ones that add jobs and support the safety net. We need to stop the others,” he said.

He also pointed out that health-care reform could bring substantial savings to the state and be an immediate source of additional funding for other necessities.

“Real, serious health care reform has to become essential in this state so we can return money to the state treasurer and to your pockets as laborers so you can pay for what you want to for your families,” he said.

Joe Avellone III, a health-care professional and former Wellesley selectman running for governor, is targeting health-care reform as well.

“We think that health care is so sacrosanct that we can’t touch it. That is not true. We can make it much more efficient,” he said. “It is 40 percent of the state budget. If it is 39 percent, one point different in the state budget — that is $359 million per year that can be saved. That is a billion dollars over three years. This can be used for education, transportation and the things that we need.”

Avellone is not confident that raising taxes is an answer to the state’s funding issues.

“I don’t favor a broad-based tax, certainly not until we have controlled health-care costs and taken the extraordinary opportunity that we can to create room in our budget,” he said. “This is no time for a broad-based tax. It will hit the middle class. And we have a great opportunity otherwise to lower health-care costs and create the opportunity for the investment that we need.”

Candidate Juliette Kayyem, a security advisor to Gov. Deval Patrick, took the strongest stand and said taxes are not the immediate answer.

“The issue of a more progressive tax rate is an important one, but I am going to be incredibly blunt with all of you — even if we want it and even if you could get the Legislature to do it — it won’t be done before 2018, just given the calendar,” Kayyem said.

She favored an examination of the current state budget and shifting allocated money away from some areas to others that are lacking. In particular, she targeted the money spent on the criminal justice system in the state and prison construction and said it should be reduced and that money should be used to fund education, green initiatives and infrastructure.

On the topic of immigration, all candidates agreed that the federal government needs to get over its gridlock on immigration reform and work together for a solution for the country, though all acknowledged this was not likely to happen soon.

At the state level for Massachusetts, the candidates’ immigration discussion focused on two issues: allowing undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. All candidates supported both measures, although Attorney General Coakley skirted supporting standard driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants saying it was important to think about if there should be a distinction in the licenses issued.

Grossman continued into the second week of his campaign to call Coakley out on her stance.

“I would like to invite the attorney general to join the rest of us and say, ‘I support driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants,’” he said. “Nobody should be driving in this Commonwealth without a driver’s license, without insurance. It is a public safety issue.”

Overall, support for immigration was strong among the Democratic candidate for governor.

“They need to be respected and I am absolutely committed to that. This is what made our country great — our diversity — the people among us who come from tremendously different backgrounds, who bring a wealth of their knowledge and their various forms of joy and commitment to their families and each other,” Berwick said. “And to turn our backs on people that are living with us is simply wrong.”

“We have to remember that that is where we all came from — that today the folks that are here, whether they are undocumented or not, are just here as the first step in hopefully a long journey in our country and in our state,” Avellone added. “We need to treat our new arrivals as parts of the community that will be our future just like they always have been in the past.”

With SEIU being one of the strongest unions in the state with 95,000 members, the candidates also addressed labor issues and said they would all support workers’ in the fight to demand rights on the job, though Coakley objected to current legislation regarding how public defenders collectively bargain for worker wages and benefits. The candidates were also in support of efforts to raise minimum wage and legislative fights that address the growing income inequality in the country.

“I am very worried about growing inequality in our nation and our state. We are becoming two communities, two nations. One of people doing very well, and increasingly well now in a period of economic recovery, and a whole lot of others who are being left behind and that is not OK,” Berwick said. “The very idea that we would deny people at the low end of the income spectrum the ability to get together, to work together, to bargain together, to assert their rights — the very idea that we would tolerate a country in which people could work 40, 50, 60 hours a week and not be able to make ends meet — is not OK for our nation.”