Candidates Clash in 5th District State Senate Race


[Wakefield Daily Item, March 17, 2014]

lewis_medeirosThe two candidates vying for the Massachusetts State Senate seat formerly held by now Congressman Katherine Clark squared off last week in an 80 minute debate at Wakefield’s WCAT studios.

Clear differences emerged between the Democrat, State Rep. Jason Lewis of Winchester, and Republican Monica Medeiros, an Alderman and former School Committee member from Melrose, as the candidates faced questions from representatives of the local press including the Wakefield Daily Item and the Melrose Weekly News.

The candidates addressed a wide range of issues including the minimum wage, local aid, the gas tax, expanding the bottle bill, charter schools and reforming elections and voting.

Asked about support for a minimum wage hike, Lewis said that he supported an increase, arguing that adjusted for inflation the current minimum wage is 25 percent less than it was 30 or 40 years ago. He said that increasing the minimum wage substantially would help working families and help the state economy.

Medeiros said that she would be open to looking at an increase in the minimum wage if it was a level that helped Massachusetts to compete economically. She also pointed to a Congressional Budget Office study that found a sharp increase in the national minimum wage could result in the loss of 500,000 jobs.

jason_lewisQuestioned about the Chapter 70 formula for state aid to local public education, Lewis said that it was one of the main issues that led him to run for state representative five years ago.

“Chapter 70 was put in place more than 20 years ago and now is completely out of date,” Lewis said. He said that he was a lead sponsor of legislation that would update the Chapter 70 formula, which he called “a top priority.”

Medeiros noted that Chapter 70 tends to benefit larger cities and towns.

“All candidates say, ‘We have to change the formula,’ and I say that too,” Medeiros continued. But she noted that in the five years that Lewis has been in the Legislature the formula has not changed. She said that the formula needs to be made fair to all communities.

The candidates were asked why it takes the legislature so long to complete most of its work despite recently proving itself capable of moving quickly as it did with passing a law prohibiting “upskirting.”

Lewis said that the upskirting issue was so egregious that everyone agreed that it needed to be addressed. Most other public policy issues, he said, take time because they are complex and involve balancing different interests.

medeiros2Medeiros agreed that complicated issues do take time, but said that the bigger problem was the influence of special interests. She pointed to a long list on Lewis’s web page of special interest groups supporting him. Such groups come with their own expectations of candidates, she maintained, muddying the waters and slowing things down.

Lewis rebutted that what Medeiros called “special interests” were in fact teachers, social workers, nurses, firefighters and steel workers, whom he called “our neighbors, our friends and colleagues.”

Neither candidate favored lifting the cap on the number of charter schools at the present time.

Although she felt that charter schools have done a good job, Medeiros said that she would not favor lifting the cap “until we are able to fund the charter school reimbursement. I don’t think we can take on new schools until we commit to funding.”

Lewis observed that while some charter schools were doing an outstanding job, others were “not so great.” He said that the state needed to determine where it was headed in the long term with charter school funding before it would make sense to move forward.

Asked how they would act to help the local economy, Lewis pointed to work that he has been doing in the legislature to reduce and contain health care costs, which he said were a major driver of costs for small businesses.

Medeiros claimed that Lewis had failed to vote for a measure to freeze the rates that employers pay for unemployment insurance. She further noted that Lewis is a major supporter of single-payer health care, a system that she said would impose a new 10 percent payroll tax on employers.

“I don’t think that helps businesses,” Medeiros said, adding that Massachusetts “should be asking for a waiver from Obamacare.”

Lewis countered that single-payer systems were used in most of the world’s industrialized nations and were “more efficiently run and cost less.” He argued that the 10 percent payroll tax would replace all health insurance premiums and other costs, with the result that people would be paying less.

The candidates had different views on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Medeiros opposed such a policy, saying that there was no indication that it would improve safety on the roads and would open the door to fraud.

Lewis pointed to thousands of undocumented residents on the roads with no training and no insurance. He advocated a “special license” and claimed that states that have licensed illegals have seen improved safety on the roads.

On expanding the bottle bill to include deposits on bottled water and sports drinks, Medeiros said that she opposed such an expansion, pointing out that people are already recycling more than in the past. Expanding the range of deposit containers would be unwieldy, she said, and place yet another burden on businesses.

lewis_medeiros2Lewis said that he was a strong supporter of an expanded bottle bill, maintaining and currently only 20 percent of non-deposit containers are recycled, with many of the remainder littering beaches and parks. Expanding the bottle bill would save money on litter clean-up, he said.

On the issue of reforming elections and voting, Medeiros said that she understood the desire to increase voter participation, but did not support same day registration, saying that it could open the door to fraud. She also opposed early voting, maintaining that it would cut down on the amount of time that candidates have to get their messages out. She advocated modifying absentee voting to accomplish some of the goals of early voting.

Lewis called for “doing everything we can to encourage people to participate more.” He said that he was very open to the reforms like same day registration and had been a champion of early voting and pre-registering 16 and 17 year-olds.

On raising the gas tax and tying future increases to inflation, Medeiros said that she had opposed both. She said that the gas tax affects the cost of all goods and services. She said that tying future increases to inflation takes away legislative accountability.

Lewis maintained that it was the business community that was calling for the gas tax increase to support and improve a transportation infrastructure that was essential to the economy of the state. He asked Medeiros how she would fund transportation infrastructure if she was not willing to increase the gas tax.

Medeiros pointed out that state revenues have been running well ahead of projections, and suggested that some of that money could be put towards transportation.

Wakefield Town Moderator William Carroll moderated the debate, which was produced for WCAT by David Watts, Jr. The debate will be rebroadcast on WCAT and distributed to cable TV stations in the five other communities in the district.

[This story originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 Wakefield Daily Item]

Photos by David Watts, Jr.

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