Friday, November 1, 2002
Unitt attacks Atkins's record in Concord debate
How should the state house manage a potential $2 billion budget deficit? Does a tax rollback make sense now? What's the best way to get the state economy back on track? These were the underlying themes of the debate between 14th District state representative Cory Atkins (D-Concord) and her opponent Peter Unitt (R-Concord) on Friday, October 25, at the Channel 8 television studio at Concord-Carlisle High School. Sponsored by the Concord Forum, an organization whose goal is "the presentation of alternative political positions and perspectives on public issues," the session was moderated by John Wilder of Chelmsford television's "The Right Stuff."
The debate began with questions from the moderator and the two newspapers represented, then allowed the candidates to take turns questioning each other. This format gave Unitt ample opportunity to attack Atkins's record and trumpet his call for a change in the "entrenched, one-party system," currently in place at the state house. In general, Atkins fielded these attacks confidently, defending her voting record and using examples from her years in the legislature to demonstrate depth and conviction against Unitt's efforts to paint her as a blind follower of the house leadership.
Kevin Zimmerman of the Concord Journal and Acton Beacon asked about support for a ballot question appearing in Concord and Chelmsford instructing representatives not to vote to re-elect David Finneran as house speaker. Atkins responded she has "no idea who will be running," and noted there are two Finnerans: the one who managed the messy '02 budget, which was five months late, and the '03 budget Finneran who provided "staff access" and "the most open process I've viewed in a good twenty-five years." As for her vote, "It all would depend on the dynamic of what's in place in January." Unitt would not vote for Finneran and broadened the debate, stating that voters have been "disenfranchised" by a lopsided Democratic legislature. "You can't re-elect the same people over and over and expect change to take place," he said.
Atkins attempted to dispel Unitt's depiction of the legislature as a Democratic monolith voting in lockstep. She said she and Carol Clevin, former Republican representative for Chelmsford and Carlisle "voted together more than apart." Speaking of the Democrats she asked, "It's one party, but is it one point of view? Not at all." She claimed house Democrats are "as diverse in opinion as in appearance."
Where to find $2 billion . . .
The question from the Mosquito elicited sad news for towns relying on state funds to balance budgets this year, as Atkins noted that local aid and Chapter 70 (aid to education) will not be excluded from cuts. The question of how each candidate would go about cutting a budget characterized by Atkins as containing a "two billion dollar structural deficit." was fielded by Unitt. He preferred reductions in all areas "rather than pick and choose who's more deserving," while protecting the mentally infirm, handicapped, and elderly who are "closer to wards of the state." Atkins said across-the-board cuts "have a disproportionate affect on people," and advocated a targeted approach. She is currently meeting with human services groups in an effort to find areas to "consolidate and streamline" and promotes "rewarding them for cost-saving measures."
Redistricting vote challenged
Unitt questioned Atkins' vote to support the recent house redistricting (which put Carlisle in Atkins' district), noting that Acton voters were concerned she had "voted to allow the 14th to be cut up and Acton to be cut in half." Atkins responded that she spent "a whole day on the floor trying to keep the town intact," adding, "I did the best I could" to bring towns and school districts together. "Most regional school systems were split and they've been reunited," she noted, pointing to Concord-Carlisle and Acton-Boxborough as examples.
Income Tax Rollback
The candidates disagreed substantially on the issue of retaining a state income tax rollback. Unitt said he voted for the rollback because he wants Massachusetts to be "a place to do business; to start businesses and have jobs." He said the rollback "freed up money that flowed into the economy." Atkins noted when she talks to constituents, "people talk about property tax relief, not income taxes," and observed that cutting income taxes will drive up property taxes. She supports a proposal to rescind the rollback during tough economic years, and challenged Unitt, if such a law were proposed, "would you be in favor of indexing?"
"No," responded Unitt, since voters supported the rollback petition. He asked, "When did we start to say any elected leader knows better than the people? Whether good or bad, voters have a right to say, 'this is what we want.'"
Atkins then told of conversations with firemen, policemen, and businesspeople in her district who told her "'freeze the tax rollback,'" and asked Unitt, "If, after a referendum, your constituents communicated to you that they'd changed their minds, would you change yours?" While conceding he would, Unitt reiterated his support for the rollback, "When the state holds our money...(it) keeps us dependent on state welfare." He notes that something is wrong, "when soccer moms end up in pantry lines."
Asked her opinion of the "Clean Elections" legislation, Atkins initially called it "riddled with invitations for abuse." She later added, "I've always been a proponent of campaign finance reform," but expected the legislation to be funded from an income tax check-off. Noting the $70 million price tax, Atkins said it's what her constituents want so, "I vote for it, but I have no idea how we're going to fund it." Unitt supports the legislation and decried the legislative ploys that required a court case to force funding. Now, he says, "it did bring forth a candidate ... we have our test case and voters can say yeah or nay."
Atkins challenged as insider
Unitt then returned to painting Atkins as a party conformist, claiming she touted her "insider access" in campaign materials. Atkins responded she is "familiar with all levels of government and "used to dealing with bureaucracy." She noted several instances in which working with the leadership benefited her constituents, adding, "You can't do anything all by yourself."
Unitt responded, "Unless you're willing to fight, people lose confidence in you as a leader. . .Sometimes it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," a challenge Atkins vigorously took up, "I'm not afraid to be a squeaky wheel." She then related how she confronted Finneran directly over the issue of prenatal care of low-income mothers. "I pick my fights because I want to win," she concluded.
Jump-starting the economy
The candidates also differed on the best way to get the economy back on track. Unitt believes that in the balancing act between increasing business and jobs versus social welfare, "social welfare has been overwhelming the other side." He said "good paying jobs are the best form of welfare" and claimed " we are rated almost dead last" in states where someone would want to start a business, due to excessive regulation and taxation. Atkins refuted this, saying, "Businesses do want to come here. We have a wonderful quality of life and an educated workforce." She believes support for education is critical to future success, and points out the top five export industries in Massachusetts are knowledge-based.
Atkins also took issue with the depiction of the legislature as financially irresponsible, and, turning the table on Unitt, asked how many times the legislature has cut taxes in the past ten years. When Unitt guessed "three," Atkins responded "forty-five times, to the tune of $4 billion." She noted the legislature had shown fiscal restraint by building up reserve accounts when republican governors opposed this.
In summary, Unitt called his candidacy an opportunity for "a new and bold change in government," adding, "I am the outsider." Atkins pointed to her "two passions: opportunity and community," noted her support for education and a strong economy, and reflected, "I can't say how much this community has meant to me. . .It's important that we make every citzen feel valued and secure."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito