Friday, September 24, 2004
Atkins, Stevenson stake out positions
The debate, sponsored by the Concord Forum, began with a round of introductions. Stevenson pointed to his years of experience as a Carlisle Selectman, working to make the town "a better place to live and raise our families." He also defined himself as a business manager with a degree from Boston College, a family man with three-year old triplets, and a product of the Carlisle Public Schools and Concord-Carlisle High School. Atkins noted she has lived in Concord for thirty years, has served in the Legislature for five, and has been extensively involved in community organizations. She listed her top priorities: to improve education, reform the Legislature, and rebuild the economy "to provide good paying and lasting jobs."
Candidates differ on taxes, budget
A question regarding cuts in local aid to communities led Stevenson to remark he had "witnessed first hand" as a Selectman the challenges towns face with cut-backs. He believes the state budget problem could be solved if Republican Governor Mitt Romney's reform plans to cut waste and patronage were adopted. He noted the Democrat-controlled Legislature has been ineffective in restoring local aid.
Atkins said cuts were necessary not because of legislative mismanagement, but because the state experienced in one year "the most precipitous drop in state revenues since the Great Depression." She said she "voted for Romney's reforms more than any other Democratic legislator." However, she opposes the governor's attempts to push more and more services onto the towns and cities, and therefore onto property taxes. She pointed to "generational warfare" as a possible result, and characterized the property tax as "the most unkind" because, unlike income taxes, it is also levied on the unemployed.
While she has taken heat for it, Atkins defended voting for a freeze on the state tax rollback to keep it at 5.3%, was "the judicious thing to do." She pointed to "severe cuts" that would otherwise have been necessary and noted the rollback will continue once the state economy recovers. Stevenson then accused Atkins of voting of "one of the largest tax increases" and pledged to keep tax rates low and reduce "needless regulation and bureaucracy." He pointed to the burden on individuals, the advantages for economic stimulus, and the need for accountability to the voters who supported the rollback.
Atkins said the governor has not been supportive of tax relief for the elderly, vetoing several proposals, one of which would have exempted elders from paying for overrides. Stevenson supports elderly tax abatement programs that "make sense." He does not support the override exemption which "shifts a huge tax burden onto other folks."
To improve under-performing schools, Stevenson would work to restore local aid, reduce unfunded mandates, and strengthen local control so superintendents have the ability "to hire and fire." Atkins believes educations reforms have already largely solved the problem of under-performing teachers and sees the bigger problem as "getting kids ready to learn." She supports more investment in early childhood and noted failing schools need the resources we take for granted in Concord and Carlisle, including technology and parent involvement. Stevenson countered that he wants to avoid "the knee-jerk reaction that poorly performing schools just need more money."
The candidates differed on funding the School Building Assistance Program. Stevenson agrees with Romney's plan to bond capital projects with long payback periods to "take advantage of lower interest rates" and "avoid the need to raise taxes." Atkins pointed to "a pattern for Republican governors to borrow and spend, borrow and spend" and noted the forty-year bond plan would cost "hundreds of millions of dollars more in interest" while unnecessarily increasing the state's debt load.
Housing and transportation
Atkins called affordable housing "the most critical issue for economic development. Businesses have a terrible time recruiting [because housing is too expensive], she said. She sees the main issue as "how to account what's affordable and what's not" so towns are treated fairly. She also supports a "smart growth" approach, championed by the governor, which looks at transportation, schools, open space, and water issues.
Stevenson opposes the override of local zoning and sees 40B as "a challenge to solid planning and zoning to protect the character of a community." He supports a regional approach that sites housing near transportation centers and employment, adding, it should be done "on our own terms, not developers'."
Stevenson called Hanscom Airforce Base "critical to the local economy" and pointed to the "tens of thousands of jobs" that rely on the base. To close it would "create a vacuum" and have "many undesirable effects." However he believes "the community needs a seat at the table" in planning for changes.
"There is universal agreement to keep the airforce base," Atkins said, pointing to the technology it supports. She called for a regional transportation plan encompassing air, rail, water, and highway "so clogged transportation doesn't become the Achilles heel of our economy. She agreed on the need for "change at the top and input from the citizenry" on the future of the airport.
Reforming state government
"Our state government doesn't operate in a democratic way," Stevenson said, pointing to a "tight-knit, entrenched" group of insiders beholden to Speaker Finneran. He accused Atkins of "ties to the Beacon Hill leadership" and of "announcing you're a reformer in an election year." He added, "On day one Doug Stevenson will be a reformer."
Atkins pointed to her leadership of the House Democratic Council, a group that defeated the Speaker on issues such as pay raises for his top lieutenants. She supported the Governor on issues such as the merging of the State Highway Department and the Turnpike Authority, but wondered if she should regret that vote upon learning that turnpike electricians were paid $285,000 per year.
Atkins targeted Stevenson's avowed support for the policies of Mitt Romney, asking if he would have agreed with the governor's cuts in prescription drug benefits, reduced support for Councils on Aging, and his $19 million reduction in money for education. Stevenson said he might diverge from the governor where policies affect towns.
Stevenson then sharpened his attack, claiming Atkins had accepted money from Finneran's Political Action Committee (PAC), a charge Atkins vehemently denied, saying "Absolutely not!."
In a follow-up phone call the Stevenson campaign provided information from the Office of Campaign Political Finance (OCPF) website showing a $200 donation in August 2002 from the "Speaker Finneran House PAC." Atkins Campaign Manager Katie Walker noted the donation was of a book of demographic information and countered the governor has given $9,000 to the Stevenson campaign and promised another $70,000. "If you want to talk about who's buying influence, a $200 book two years ago versus $9,000 donated this year and $70,000 promised is a ridiculous argument." She noted Atkins has accepted no money during this campaign from the Speaker or from the state Democratic Party.
Both the $200 Speaker's donation to Atkins and the $9,000 donation to Stevenson from the Massachussetts Republican Party on 8/27/04 were confirmed on the OCPF website. (http://www.mass.gov/ocpf/comm.htm).
Stevenson also accused Atkins of ignoring the wishes of constituents in her votes on clean elections laws, English immersion, and extending the reign of House Speaker Finneran. Atkins defended the wisdom of her votes and countered the only opponent to Finneran was "a man who had not paid taxes in five years." She said the House Democratic Council arose out of her and other legislators' frustrations with the lack of a viable alternative.
Stevenson had the last word, summarizing himself as a man "with the ear of the governor" but one who will "listen to constituents" and "represent as I see fit."
© 2004 The