By Matt Murphy

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

LOWELL -- Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker fended off criticism from his primary opponent on Thursday about his reluctance to sign an anti-tax increase pledge as the two Republicans running for the corner office debated immigration, a controversial pipeline proposal and role of the governor in the Market Basket saga.

Baker, after the debate, also reiterated his intention to file legislation, if elected, to allow a Springfield casino to open even if the expanded gambling law is struck down by voters in November. He first floated the idea this week while visiting the Springfield area, and his opponent, Mark Fisher, said he was "surprised" by Baker's position.

In back-to-back forums at Middlesex Community College, the two Republicans running for governor squared off after independents Jeff McCormick and Evan Falchuk engaged in their own feisty, hour-long debate. The third independent in the race - Scott Lively - was not invited, but he told the News Service he has submitted the signatures needed to qualify or the ballot.

The debate, at the Federal Building in downtown Lowell, was also sponsored by The Sun, of Lowell, and the Sentinel and Enterprise, of Fitchburg.

"Unlike Martha Coakley, I always thought this question belonged on the ballot and I'm glad it's on the ballot and I'm glad the voters are going to get a chance to vote on it, and if the voters vote the whole thing down the voters in Springfield did vote 60-40 to support a casino in Springfield and I would like to give them an opportunity to make their case," Baker told the News Service.


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Fisher, who had not been aware of Baker's position until asked by a reporter, said he supports repeal, but would abide by the outcome of the ballot initiative this fall. "You have to abide by the will of the people. I'm not going to try to circumvent that. I'm surprised he said that," Fisher said.

Baker, who has often said he would prefer to start with a single casino and expand if successful, said he would file a bill as governor to allow MGM to open its planned casino in Springfield if the ballot question prevails.

The Gaming Commission awarded the first resort casino license to MGM earlier this year, and it could make a decision on a Greater Boston casino in either Everett or Revere, where voters have also approved the proposals, before the fall election.

"The Springfield casino's been approved. It has, I think, significant consequences for a region of the state that really needs an engine, an investment and a kick start and I think the proposal that's been made out there is a very imaginative proposal and I would be willing to refile it and engage that conversation," Baker said.

Baker, a centrist Republican facing opposition from the more conservative elements of the Republican Party in Massachusetts, has refused to sign an anti-tax pledge despite doing so when he ran for governor in 2010. Fisher, who needs to make up ground on Baker, sought to exploit that position as well as bait Baker into a debate on illegal immigration.

"I think our tax code is too complicated and in many cases, it's rigged. And I would like be able to come up with a simpler, fairer way of managing our tax code here in Massachusetts," Baker said, explaining his reluctance to sign the pledge. "I'm not going to raise taxes. I've said that over and over. I mean it. But I do think if we can make the tax code simpler we should."

Fisher responded by telling Baker that signing the pledge was the "Republican thing to do."

"Weld did it. Cellucci did it. You did it four years ago. I've done it now. Stop telling people you won't raise taxes. Do something. Sign the no new tax pledge," Fisher said.

Though both candidates said they oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, Fisher accused Baker of funding organizations that support in-state tuition and drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants while leading Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

"That's not true," Baker responded, explaining that the separate Harvard Pilgrim Foundation started a program after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for employees working with community organizations to apply for "mini-grants." Some of the funding went to groups like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

When Fisher suggested Harvard Pilgrim failed to perform "due diligence" on the organization receiving funding, Baker declined to engage. 

Despite clear differences in philosophy, Baker and Fisher did find agreement in some areas, including their opposition to the national Common Core education curriculum, the need for increased local aid, and the importance of vocational school training for young students.

The candidates agreed that the lack of two-party competition on Beacon Hill contributes to the Democratic majority simply throwing more money at problems rather than finding ways to be more efficient and effective. Baker repeated his pledge to increase local aid to cities and towns by the same percentage of annual revenue growth to the state, while Fisher said he would find $5 million for local aid by "cutting off" benefits to undocumented immigrants.

While Baker said he thought the governor had a role to play in helping to resolve the Market Basket standoff between workers and new management, Fisher said as governor he would have watched it play out "from the sidelines" rather than get involved in a private company's business.

"There are professional arbitrators who do this. Deval Patrick is not the person you want to be out there cajoling people to go back to work," Fisher said.

Asked about the controversial proposal to extend a natural gas pipeline from New York through Massachusetts to Dracut, Baker said the state needs more natural gas capacity, but would rather see that capacity expanded along existing pipeline routes as the state explores ways to tap into Canadian hydropower as well.

Fisher said he's concerned about balancing the need for gas with the rights of property owners, and called for an open process that considers different routes rather than imposing the pipeline on communities that oppose it.