By Andy Metzger and Mike Deehan
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
BOSTON -- Revealing differences on the role of government in helping cities, regulating health care and their outlook on the Market Basket fiasco, Republican gubernatorial candidates Charlie Baker and Mark Fisher met in their first debate Wednesday with less than four weeks to go until the primary.
Baker, the 2010 party nominee and the favorite to win the nomination this year, critiqued Gov. Deval Patrick's administration for its handling of medical marijuana licensing and the state's health insurance exchange, said a Republican is needed to balance the overwhelming Democrat majority on Beacon Hill and offered ideas for boosting economies of areas outside Metro Boston and lowering the cost of higher education.
Fisher, a metal manufacturer and political newcomer who made it onto the primary ballot after suing his own party, carried a consistent message of a hands-off government that would rid itself of special interest tax breaks, eliminate and lower other taxes, and oversee a health insurance market that looks more like the auto insurance market, with lower premiums and payouts only for major treatments.
Though the two have attended a forum during the campaign, the one-hour program moderated by Bob Oakes at WBUR was their first time going head-to-head in a debate, according to a campaign official. Though the two had differing perspectives on many issues it wasn't until his final statement that Fisher criticized Baker directly, critiquing him for his more tempered stance in his current campaign.
"Four years ago Charlie got it right, saying Massachusetts is a mess. But when he ran again this time he's come out and said Massachusetts is just fine. We haven't gone from being a mess to being fine. We've gone from being a mess to being worse," Fisher said.
Baker steered clear of Fisher in his close, saying voters are ready for "balance on Beacon Hill."
Fisher continued his needling of the frontrunner after the debate, telling reporters he was mistaken for calling Baker "Democrat lite" in the past when he is actually "Democrat-strong."
"It's a standard practice because they feel like Massachusetts is owned by the Democrats that you have to run sort of like a Democrat. You can't run as a Republican, certainly not as a Republican, to win. I have the opposite approach: I say the Democrats own the state; that means they own all the problems. What a great time to run as a Republican and win," Fisher told reporters.
Estimating 225,000 to 240,000 voters - in a state of 6.6 million people - will cast ballots in the Republican primary, Fisher noted the far and away favorite, former U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, lost his primary race this year to an underdog who mounted an ideological campaign.
"We can do that here," the Shrewsbury Republican said. Fisher said, "I turn out that Tea Party base, I win."
Asked if he was a conservative, Baker told reporters he has his own ideology.
"I consider myself a Baker Republican and I think a Baker Republican on some issues would be considered conservative and on others a moderate," the Swampscott Republican said.
Baker said a Baker Republican is "hardheaded" and "big-hearted" and "knows how to get stuff done in public service," and said his biggest difference with Fisher is their levels of experience.
"I think the biggest difference is probably just experience and leading and running big organizations and creating teams and getting stuff done, whether it's the private sector or the public sector," said Baker, who said he fully expects to win the primary and general election.
While Baker said his conversations with people in the recovery community and elsewhere have convinced him to oppose the notion of legalizing recreational marijuana, Fisher said he is open to the idea and wants to see how those policies work in Washington and Colorado.
"Let's see how things play out there," Fisher said.
Baker said the state's licensing of medical marijuana dispensaries since voters legalized the drug's medical use in 2012 has been "a disaster from start to finish," and said he supports bringing in more ideas from the medical community, such as strict dosing. Baker said, "If I have the ability to reboot it I absolutely will."
Fisher said medical marijuana use is "an issue between the doctor and the patient," and said the licensing process was yet another example of "government incompetence."
Baker said he would sign the comprehensive gun bill that Patrick signed Wednesday, while Fisher, a former gun owner, said he would not.
"I'm actually glad that we finally dealt with what I consider to be three of the major issues that we all face," said Baker, referring to increased attention on gun trafficking, enhanced penalties for gun crimes and more cooperation with a federal background check database. "And the fact that you have the gun safety people and the gun owners folks for the most part reasonably content with this legislation, I think is a good thing and I would sign it."
"We don't need stricter gun laws here in Massachusetts," Fisher said. Fisher and Baker both said they supported the removal of a licensing requirement for pepper spray.
Baker said he does not own a gun, saying, "Never needed to."
"If you want a good neighbor, find yourself a law-abiding gun owner because they have to be squeaky clean," said Fisher, noting background check requirements. Fisher said he no longer owns a gun, saying, "I built my own shotgun. I owned it; I shot it; I sold it in a private sale."
Both candidates had different outlooks on the role of the state's chief executive in the family feud within the ownership of Market Basket that has resulted in picket lines and empty shelves while the future of the supermarket chain remains unclear.
"There's clearly a failure of leadership going on here," said Baker, who noted "generally speaking governments aren't supposed to get in the knitting of family-run business" and said his approach would be to quietly reach out to both sides encouraging them to find agreement.
"I'm very impressed with the employees. I don't think that they would necessarily call themselves Tea Party members, but it's the spirit of the Tea Party that is going up against the establishment, either of a private business or a political party, or the government," said Fisher. He said, "With regards to government involvement, this is a free market issue."
Fisher said the effect of supply and demand ensures supermarket jobs would be available somewhere nearby even if Market Basket folds. "It's a free market issue and it will be wonderful to see this play out and serve as a great example for how it plays out without government involvement," said Fisher, who said he would "absolutely not" get involved in the disagreement if he was governor.
Baker sounded notes of concern.
"There's an old line about when the elephants dance, it's the ants who get crushed," Baker said. He said, "That organization has been doing nothing but growing for the better part of the past decade. This is the classic example of what you want out of an American business...and this feud is blowing the whole thing to pieces."
Fisher said he would allow industries and municipalities to prosper with less owed in taxes and fewer regulations, and while letting them fend for themselves.
"I want to make a rising tide that floats all boats," Fisher said when asked what he would do to help immigrants find jobs. He said, "People who are in these boats that are afloat on the rising tide at some point have to raise the anchor, set the sail and take helm. I'm not going to cater to individuals, specific industries or to regions."
Citing initiatives in the Lowell area and in the Fields Corner neighborhood of Dorchester, Baker said ensuring public safety can be a first step toward fostering a friendly business climate as can mutually beneficial partnerships and drawing on the talents of people in an area.
"I think we ought to have a tax-free zone policy in many of our gateway cities," said Baker, saying the corporate tax could be lowered in certain areas to encourage growth. He said the state could play a role in readying sites for developments, cutting the time needed to be spent by investors on a "messy" permitting process.
While Fisher said he would "absolutely not" support tax credits for specific industries, Baker said there is a role for credits, such as a research and development tax break, and said stability in tax policy is important for the business community.
"Once you've established a tax policy you probably ought to maintain it for some period of time. I think the worst thing you can do with tax policy is to constantly rewrite it and rearrange it because of the message to all businesses is you basically can't be depended upon," said Baker. He said, "The film tax credit's been capped, which I think is a good idea."
"We don't do fad funding of those fad industries, like Evergreen Solar or Cape Wind or the movie industry," said Fisher. Fisher said he opposes tax credits, and said the state should repeal what he described as a little known tax on inventory after one year.
"What it's doing is keeping big distribution centers from coming to Massachusetts and taking advantage of our central location in New England," Fisher said. Fisher also wants to cut regulations and cut the corporate tax rate to boost the economy.
Baker, the former chief of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, had a far different outlook on state health care policy than Fisher, who favors a far diminished role for health insurance.
"I think health care should be sort of like auto insurance," said Fisher, who said if only catastrophic claims were covered and other care was paid out of pocket, the way gas and oil changes are for a car, health insurance premiums would be "more affordable."
Baker said the state's health exchange had worked fine until the state tried to incorporate the requirements of the federal Affordable Care Act.
"For the life of me I can't understand why the Patrick administration and the Health Connector broke a system that was working here," said Baker, who said the temporary Medicaid coverage and repairs to website codes could eventually add up to a $500 million price tag, and suggested Patrick could have avoided it by seeking a waiver from the federal government, which used the Bay State system as a model for the controversial law.
The two Republican candidates also disagreed on a pending agreement between Attorney General Martha Coakley, the Democratic frontrunner for governor, and Partners HealthCare, allowing the health giant to acquire South Shore Hospital and Hallmark Health System but placing conditions on its future growth.
Baker said the agreement is "so complicated I'm not sure it's enforceable," and said it would allow Partners to continue growing more expensive than its competitors and said he would prefer Partners be required to provide price transparency on its medical procedures.
"Part of the free market is acquisitions and purchases," said Fisher, who blamed the state's high health costs on the 2006 health reform law he called "Romneycare."
Though Baker said he would have taken a different approach to casino gaming in Massachusetts he differed with Fisher, who said he would vote to repeal the 2011 gaming law on this fall's ballot.
"I always thought the best answer on the whole casino thing was to get the state of Connecticut to write Massachusetts a check for $300 or $400 million every year not to build a casino," Baker said. Baker said he would have preferred having only one casino - while the law allows for up to three - and said he would not vote to repeal. Baker said MGM's planned casino in Springfield will redevelop an area damaged by a tornado.
Fisher said casinos are the wrong approach.
"I don't think we'd even be considering casinos if Massachusetts had been business friendly... Let's get people into good paying jobs and not going into casinos and having to lose their money," said Fisher. Asked what he would say to Penn National Gaming, which is building a slots parlor at Plainridge Racecourse, Fisher said, "They better put some money into the vote no on the ballot question then. They're taking a risk."
Baker said he would "want to have a conversation" with Gaming Commission Chairman Stephen Crosby, who has recused himself from the Metro Boston casino selection, and Fisher said he would seek his resignation.
Fisher and Baker agreed that there should be more charter schools, and Fisher said students should be offered vouchers to attend private schools.
Both also said they were critical of the Common Core curriculum, a collaboration between states on student standards, with Fisher saying he would "absolutely" back out of it if elected.
"I'm the only person in Massachusetts who testified against going with Common Core in 2010 at the hearing before the Board of Education," said Baker, a former member of the education board. He said he had concerns that the curriculum was not yet developed and Massachusetts is already a leader in student standards.
"Teachers teach best. They know the needs of their children," Fisher said. He said, "The state does have a role to play, certainly not the federal government, but the state has a role to play, but certainly not by imposing unfunded mandates and things like that."
On reining in the cost of higher education, Baker said the state should offer students the chance to complete college in three years, incorporate more online education, and seek guidance from Northeastern University on how to build a similar co-op program for students in the workplace within public higher education. He said, "We're not going to get there by trying to buy our way out."
Citing the alleged misuses of school funding at Westfield State University, Fisher said the state should look into how higher education money is being spent and said federal subsidies have contributed to the inflating cost.
"If the government wasn't subsidizing student education to the level that it is, I don't think the costs would have risen as much as they have," Fisher said.
Responding to a question about corruption within the probation department, which led to the conviction of three former probation officials for rigging hiring, Fisher said the solution is term limits, while Baker said reforms and a bipartisan government would provide the answer.
"I do think this is a classic example of one-party government," said Baker, who said with only Democrats in charge "you don't have somebody pushing people from the other direction and forcing them to be accountable."
Baker said the state should publicize not only the jobs available, but who won them, their qualifications and any recommendations they may have received. He said the inspector general should regularly review hiring decisions in state agencies.
"This is not a Democrat or Republican problem. This is a problem with career politicians being in office being influenced by lobbyists and other influencers, and I think the answer's simple: it's term limits," said Fisher.