From this week's Leominster Champion:
The two candidates for Leominster’s state representative seat met Monday night for their third, and final, debate in the race to succeed Dennis Rosa in the 4th Worcester District.
Republican Thomas “Frank” Ardinger, a member of the Leominster Board of Health and a Republican state committeeman, and Democrat Natalie Higgins, executive director of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts, took part. The debate in the meeting room of the Leominster Public Library, sponsored by the Leominster Champion, allowed community members to hear out the candidates’ stances and pose questions.
When asked about their top three priorities, the candidates shared the opinion that Leominster’s economy and job market need attention.
“People feel that we have to change Leominster a little bit,” said Ardinger. “We have to get some new jobs in here, some good paying jobs.”
Ardinger added that the city’s retail environment is good, but the economy would benefit from more manufacturing jobs. His other priorities include making sure that residents get the most out of their tax dollars and educating the public on the opioid crisis.
“It’s an illness that you can never cure,” he said of opiate addiction. “We have to provide them the support that they need to help fight that addiction.”
Higgins’ other two priorities as state representative would be educational opportunities and making sure that the community has adequate mental health services.
“I’m going to be looking for … opportunities to bring resources home to Leominster,” she said, “so that we have the important programs we need.”
Higgins added that Leominster needs to invest effort in issues such as the student debt crisis and mental health awareness.
Ardinger said the first bill he would file as state representative would be to repeal the inventory tax, which taxes manufacturing businesses throughout the state 2.6 percent the value of their equipment. He estimated that if the tax were eliminated, about 250 new manufacturing would be made available in Leominster.
Higgins’ first bill would be a “Borrower’s Bill of Rights,” aiming to protect student loan borrowers from unbearable debt burdens. She said the average graduates from a four-year university start their lives with $30,000 in student debt.
“That’s a huge drag on our economy,” said Higgins. “We really need to tackle this so that we have the same opportunities that our parents’ generation had.”
One of the candidates’ most notable disagreements was on the subject of the Fair Share Amendment, a proposed change to the state constitution that would implement an additional income tax of 4 cents on every dollar earned over $1 million.
Higgins favors the amendment, believing that the extra revenue would provide the state with resources to fund public education programs and make investments in infrastructure.
“I think the point that really needs to get brought across,” she said, “is that … we’re seeing the lack of investment in areas that need it the most [like] public education, colleges, universities, and our public transportation.”
Ardinger believes that the Fair Share Amendment would set a precedent for the state to continually amend tax laws and target lower brackets for increased income tax. Instead, he favors the idea of eliminating the sales tax in Massachusetts, which he proposed would give local businesses a better chance of competing with tax-free retail stores in New Hampshire. The difference, he said, could be made up by keeping the current level income tax, but possibly raising it.
“In my estimation, a fair share tax is one where everybody pays the same rate,” said Ardinger.
He added that Massachusetts, unlike New Hampshire, should not make up the difference in property tax, as it puts low income families and senior citizens at a disadvantage.
Stances on ballot questions:
When it came to the first ballot question on the Nov. 8 ballot, which asks whether a second slots parlor should be allowed in Massachusetts, both Higgins and Ardinger were opposed.
For Higgins, it’s a matter of Plainridge Park in Plainville, the state’s first casino, not yet showing promising results.
“We’ve seen that the Plainridge Casino hasn’t necessarily met its revenue projections,” she said. “And it doesn’t create the same kind of good, high quality jobs that more of the resort style casinos make. It’s a lot of temporary construction jobs.”
Ardinger agreed that the evidence shown by Plainridge does not merit a proposal for a second casino in Massachusetts, adding that Question 1 would only benefit the developer of a proposed casino near Suffolk Downs.
“Why should one individual have a law passed to benefit just that one individual?” he said.
Question 2 would allow up to 12 new charter schools in the state or expand enrollment at existing charter schools. Ardinger believes that charter schools offer successful opportunities for students from low income families to be educated in better school districts and favors expanding enrollment.
“We have a waiting list right now of 32,000 inner city youth waiting for a better opportunity,” he said. “Parents should be given the choice to get their students into a better school district if the school is available.”
Higgins opposed the question, saying that the system needs reform and calling charter schools “the new ‘separate but equal.’”
“We need to make sure that every single one of our kids has access to this,” she said, “because the schools themselves are self-selecting.”
Higgins added that some charter schools, which are run by private boards but funded by public money, reserve the right to deny transportation to and from certain areas, “keeping certain kids out of the door.”
“They’re sucking money out of our public education system and not even helping all of the students in our community,” she said. “I just do not think that that’s fair.”
Higgins believes instead in charter schools such as the Leominster Center for Excellence, which is a part of the public school district and is overseen by the superintendent of Leominster Public Schools and the School Committee elected by the community.
Question 3, proposing a ban on the sale of eggs, veal, or pork that come from farm animals that are confined to overly restrictive cages, was ultimately supported by both candidates. Ardinger said he had already voted yes when casting his early voting ballot on Monday, but that he was ambivalent toward the issue, saying it may result in higher prices for grocery products.
Higgins said she favors the ban not only because she opposes the cages in which those animals are kept, but also because poor living conditions can result in diseases that spread throughout the livestock and hurt farmers’ income.
The two candidates were again divided on Question 4, which proposes the legalization of recreational marijuana use for those over the age of 21. Higgins, who said she has never used marijuana and does not condone it, nonetheless supports its legalization and regulation. She believes that since the decriminalization of possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana in 2008, the persistent problem has been that users are still going to drug dealers who have “marijuana in one pocket and opioids in another.”
“I’m really concerned and want to push to make sure that we regulate marijuana,” said Higgins, adding that the money that comes from regulation could be used for prevention education and to fund addiction treatment programs.
Ardinger’s stance was that legalization is being pushed by the highly profitable marijuana industries of Colorado and Washington.
“They don’t care about the residents of Leominster,” he said. “All they’re looking for is to expand their market.”
He argued that marijuana is a gateway drug that serves as a catalyst to the opioid crisis, and that products such as edibles and marijuana-infused soft drinks are being negligently marketed to kids. He also cited a study that found that legalization will not reduce illegal sale.
More information on these two candidates can be found at Ardinger’s website, frank4rep.com, or Higgins’ website, electnataliehiggins.com.