In today's Sentinel & Enterprise:
LEOMINSTER -- With early voting underway in the city and the Nov. 8 election date approaching, the two candidates for the 4th Worcester District seat in the state House of Representatives made their final public pleas to voters at their second debate Monday.
Democrat Natalie Higgins and Republican Thomas "Frank" Ardinger highlighted their differing views on taxes while letting city residents know they will be accessible and fight for the city's needs if elected.
"I don't work for special interests," Ardinger said in his opening statement of the debate, sponsored by the Leominster Champion and held at Leominster Public Library. "I work for you."
"I am ready to be there on the other end of the phone when any of you need anything," Higgins said in her opening remarks.
They are running to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Dennis Rosa, who choose not to seek re-election after four terms.
If elected, their ways of going about helping the community will differ.
Ardinger emphasized that he will never vote to increase taxes.
Higgins , a local attorney and executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, has been a staunch supporter of the "Fair Share" amendment proposal, also called the "millionaire's tax," which would levy a 4-cent tax on every dollar of earned personal income over $1 million, which she said will allow more resources to be put into the needs of the community. There are 12 Leominster residents who would be affected, she said.
"Those who are doing well are able to help carry the load," Higgins said about having a more progressive tax. "In terms of the Fair Share amendment, the point that really needs to be brought across is that you and I are paying 11 or 12 percent of income in taxes and have been. Yet if you earn more than $1 million, you only have to pay 6 percent of your income in taxes. That's just not fair."
Ardinger, who serves as the Republican State Committeman and a city Board of Health member, said there should be a 5 percent personal income-tax rate across the board, honoring the Massachusetts Income Tax Rate Reduction Initiative that was passed on the ballot in 2000. The Legislature has been incrementally decreasing the rate.
"We should go by the 5 percent rate, not incrementally," he said. "We should do it right now. A fair-share tax is one where everyone pays the same rate."
Ardinger said taxes are one of his three top priorities, along with jobs and the economy and fighting the opioid crisis in the region.
Higgins listed her three top priorities as jobs, schools and providing "adequate" mental health and substance-abuse resources to residents.
Those views were reflected when the candidates were asked what the first bill they would file on Beacon Hill would be.
Ardinger said he would file a bill to get rid of the inventory tax, which requires manufacturing companies in the state to pay a 2.6 percent tax on their equipment annually.
"That is one of those impediments I talk about that stops businesses from coming into Leominster," he said. "If we can repeal that law or modify that law to get rid of that tax, it is estimated that it would bring in 250 new jobs to Leominster. That is important."
Higgins said she plans to file a student-loan borrowers bill of rights to "make sure student-loan borrowers in Massachusetts know that they are protected."
"They need to know that we care about them," she said. "We have almost a million Massachusetts residents carrying a student-loan debt totaling $24 billion. That is a huge drag on our economy."
The candidates were also asked to say how they were going to vote on the four ballot questions. Both Ardinger and Higgins agreed they would vote "no" on Question 1, which would allow the Gaming Commission to issue an additional slots license, and "yes" on Question 3, which would prohibit certain methods of farm-animal containment.
Both pointed to the Plainridge Park Casino failing to meet revenue expectations to why they oppose Question 1.
"Let's let the casino plan play out before we start introducing more," Higgins said.
For Question 2, which would authorize the approval of up to 12 new charter schools annually, Higgins said she will vote against, while Ardinger is in favor of the potential expansion of charter schools.
"We have a waiting list of 32,000 low-income, inner-city (residents) waiting for a better opportunity," Ardinger said. "Parents should be given the choice to get their students into a better school if it's available."
Higgins said she is in favor of the concept of charter schools, but she is opposed to the uncapping of their expansion, which, if passed, the ballot question would do.
She said Leominster Public Schools are losing $800,000 this year even after state reimbursement.
"We need that money in our community," Higgins said.
For the final ballot question, Higgins said she is in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana for people over 21. Ardinger said he is opposed, adding that marijuana use has contributed to the opioid crisis and that outside investors pushing for the question to pass don't have residents' best interests at heart.
"Not every person who smokes marijuana becomes addicted to opioids, but every person addicted to opioids say they started with marijuana," Ardinger said Worcester County Sheriff Lew Evangelidis told him at a recent opioid forum held by Ardinger.
Higgins dismissed Ardinger's claim that marijuana is a gateway drug, saying "that was debunked a real long time ago."
She said the decriminalization of marijuana has put the state in an "uncomfortable gray area."
"OK, you can have it, but you can't buy it legally," Higgins said. "We are sending you underground to a drug dealer who has marijuana in one pocket and opioids in another. This is not safe for our community."
Both agreed that opoids are ravaging North Central Massachusetts and more resources need to be put toward the prevention and help for those affected by addiction.
An audience member asked Ardinger during the question-and-answer section how he was going to do that without raising taxes. He said programs can be created, like Evangelidis' Face2Face prevention program, without raising taxes.
"It takes creative ideas like that," Ardinger said.
Higgins said the lack of resources put into the opioid crisis is why it has gone on this long, saying money pulled in from a tax like the "millionaire's tax" could mean more resources put into helping those affected by addiction.
"We haven't really had the resources in the community to take this head-on," she said.
Both candidates said they will do their best to take on all the issues the city faces.
Ardinger closed the debate with his campaign slogan: "I will be a voice on Beacon Hill, not an echo."
Higgins said her 10 years in public service make her the one for the seat.
"I am really excited to be the best state rep you have ever seen," she said.