By Gintautas Dumcius
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
The three Democrats running for governor debated taxes, free community college, the Lottery and the recent probation department corruption trial during their last televised debate before the Sept. 9 primary.
The debate, between Treasurer Steve Grossman, Attorney General Martha Coakley and former Obama health care official Don Berwick was moderated by New England Cable News host Jim Braude.
The three contenders spent much of the hour lobbing criticisms at each other on gambling issues, taxes and economic development proposals.
Braude asked the candidates "what tax is the one you'd go to first" after cutting waste in government.
"I can't give you one, Jim," Berwick said. When pressed, he said he'd focus on loopholes and exemptions such as lack of taxes on airplane parts or sales of rare coins.
He would put the graduated income tax, which requires passage of a constitutional amendment, "on the table," Berwick said, while Grossman reiterated his support to focus on protecting certain exemptions, the property tax circuit breaker and the earned income tax credit.
When Braude pressed Coakley if she supported changing the constitution on the graduated income tax, she said "potentially." "But it's going to take a while to do it and there are probably easier ways to do it," she added.
"So you're unsure?" Braude said.
"Unsure, absolutely, because I am going to think about it," Coakley said.
The income tax talk prompted a response from Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker's campaign which took aim at Coakley, who continues to lead Grossman and Berwick in public polling.
"Martha Coakley shouldn't have to 'think about it.' Taking more money out of the peoples' paychecks is the wrong thing to do and the wrong way to grow our economy and create jobs," Baker spokesman Tim Buckley said in a statement.
The statement also sought to echo Grossman, who has ramped up his criticism of Coakley. "Steve Grossman is right when he points to the Attorney General's refusal to tell voters where she stands on important issues," Buckley said. "Real leadership means making decisions, protecting taxpayers, and balancing budgets - not hiding your stance on a drastic tax hike that would hit workers hard."
Gov. Deval Patrick's unsuccessful push for free community college in his first year in office was another topic in the debate.
"Yeah, absolutely," Coakley said when asked whether she supports the proposal. "I think we need to look at how we're going to pay for it."
Grossman called it an "intriguing idea" and said he supports freezing fees and tuition at all public colleges over the next four years because students are "drowning in debt." "Look, I don't think it's right to propose something that you don't know the cost of doing so," he added. "Taxpayers have a right to know if you lay out an idea to them, Martha, you better know what it's going to cost."
Berwick said he favors at least "last dollar coverage," a program in which a qualified person can be covered by the state to attend a publicly supported higher education facility if they can't find a way to afford it.
When Braude asked what the next step should be after the recent passage of the minimum wage increase to $11 an hour by 2017, Grossman said he would not mandate a living wage at $15 an hour. But he said he would build a consensus around a living wage, Grossman added.
Berwick would seek a higher minimum wage, including through legislation, and he called the goal of a $15 minimum wage "reasonable," he said.
Asked about the $15-an-hour minimum wage, Coakley said she backs the right of workers to organize and bargain for that.
"It's another non-answer and it's not going to keep the governor's office in the Democratic column," Berwick responded.
Braude also brought up the "virtual silence" from Beacon Hill lawmakers in the wake of the convictions of three former probation department officials in connection with orchestrating a hiring system geared toward success for politically wired job applicants.
Coakley said the "the verdicts were sound in that case" and noted lawmakers were not charged. "As many as them have said, and we would say and I would say, if the federal government had evidence, they would have charged people," she said. "They did not do that."
Grossman said he was "deeply troubled" by lawmakers' silence and added that the treasurer's office doesn't take calls from legislators recommending candidates for jobs.
Berwick said the legislators should apologize. "I think this pattern of insider games, lobbyist influence, it's far too extensive and we need a change," he said.
Asked what the candidates would say to a voter who may be weighing whether there should be more balance in a Democrat-dominated state government, Coakley pointed to a scandal during Joe Malone's tenure as treasurer. "It's not party-related so much as lack of transparency, too much authority," she said, adding that her office's public integrity unit has handled 70 cases, including some against Democrats.
That caused Grossman reiterate his criticism of a recent settlement Coakley's office reached with a lobbyist over an allegedly illegal contingency fee contract with the Franciscan Hospital for Children. The lobbyist, former state Sen. John Brennan, "got a special deal" and should've returned more of the money than the settlement allowed, he said.
"So we've talked about this a lot, and Steve has made up facts and he has made up the law that he doesn't understand," Coakley said.
Asked about job creation plans, Berwick said he would promote innovation, transportation-oriented development and "fair conditions" for workers, while Coakley pointed to her recently unveiled $500 million plan over 10 years that includes infrastructure developments and $100 million for a grant program allowing for "regional economic development."
Grossman for the second consecutive day called Coakley's proposal "fake." "That is rolled out two weeks before a Democratic primary to sound like a plan. It's not a serious plan, Martha," he said.
The candidates were also asked about the state Lottery, which funnels money to cities and towns, with Braude saying it can sometimes work as a "sort of Robin Hood in reverse" since data shows low-income families in Chelsea spen more on the Lottery than wealthy families in Weston.
Grossman, who oversees the Lottery, said he would support looking at the formula for unrestricted local aid and making it "a little more equitable" for municipalities.
"I think we need to look at how that works," Coakley said, adding that she is opposed to the state moving into internet gaming while Grossman supports it.
Berwick called the Lottery "regressive," redistributing money from the poor to the wealthy. "I'd watch it like a hawk," he said, and he would study the Lottery to minimize its regressive effect.
"Steve claims to be a champion of the poor and my goodness, online gaming is an invitation to even worse problem than the casinos bring in," Berwick said.
Asked if he would dump the Lottery and raise the income tax to make up for the revenue, Berwick said he wanted a fairer tax income system but he is a "realist." "We'll start with the status quo," he said. "But let's at least mitigate the effect of further invitation to gambling in the Commonwealth."
As in previous debates, the candidates clashed over casinos. Berwick has centered his campaign on his opposition to casinos and support for a November ballot question repealing a 2011 expanded gambling law allow up to three casinos.
"I wish both of you would come out against [casinos]," he said.
Full debate online: http://www.necn.com/news/politics/Democratic-Primary-Debate-for-Massachusetts-Governor-274015041.html