Baker and Coakley debate at south coast

BOSTON (SHNS) – Parrying over how they would pay for transportation and education priorities, the two frontrunners in the Massachusetts governor’s race on Friday steered clear of the issues of child safety and a lawsuit against major housing lenders that have characterized other disputes between the candidates.

At a late afternoon debate, Republican Charlie Baker described himself as a “weed-whacker” who would get into the meat of problems that affect the state. Baker discussed his proposals to rent out state land for housing, put a greater emphasis on vocational education, and create a transparent health care system where providers publicly list their prices with the aim of driving down costs.

Name-checking local lawmakers and a nearby bridge and annual festival, Democrat Martha Coakley said she would “grow” Bristol Community College, provide “need-blind tuition” to community college students, and delve into the formula for providing state funding to local schools.

Coakley, the attorney general, and Baker, who spent eight years in the Weld and Cellucci administrations, were tied 41-41 in a SocialSphere poll for the Boston Globe released Friday. They will share the ballot with independents Evan Falchuk, Jeff McCormick and Scott Lively, who have been stuck in single digits in polling.

The candidates will also share space on the ballot with a referendum seeking to repeal the 2013 law requiring the gas tax to rise with inflation. Coakley supports the indexing law and Baker wants to repeal it.

“The attorney general thinks we should just raise taxes forever…” said Baker, arguing lawmakers should be required to vote on tax increases. He claimed the revenues raised would be minimal and pledged to increase transportation funding if elected.

Hitting Baker for his involvement in financing the Big Dig construction project through downtown Boston, Coakley said the highway tunnel work was a “misguided project” that sapped funding for other worthy transportation projects, and suggested there was a memo about financing the project that “got kept until after the 2010 election” when Baker ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Deval Patrick. She said the memo was held because Baker “didn’t want that financing issue to come up.”

Coakley also claimed Baker hadn’t demonstrated how he would pay for transportation expenditures, earned-income tax credits and local aid increases, saying he used “fuzzy math.”

Baker said there was a federal shortfall in funding the Big Dig, and he worked with the Clinton administration and the Democrat-controlled state Legislature to provide a financing scheme that was later replicated by the Accelerated Bridge Program initiated under the Patrick administration.

“It started when I was in college, and ended long after I left state government and it cost $15 billion,” Baker said of the Big Dig. He said, “The notion that the Big Dig is the reason that we can’t pay for projects in Massachusetts is simply not true. We can and we will.”

Asked about Baker’s comparison of the financing to Patrick’s bridge program, Coakley told reporters, “Given that all that money went to Boston, we didn’t get federal funds for a long time after that, and because it put us at a disadvantage around the rest of the state.”

The two were on the same page in supporting the South Coast Rail project, a $2.2 billion extension of the commuter rail through Taunton to Fall River and New Bedford, though Baker opposed the project in 2010.

After the debate, Baker told reporters he was “always concerned” with permitting around the Hockomock Swamp, a preserve along the rail route north of Taunton. He said, “After the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on that, I thought the project had a real chance to be successful.”

Both candidates sided with New Bedford Mayor Jonathan Mitchell in a dispute with Patrick about the naming of a large pier under construction in New Bedford. Mitchell has complained that the Clean Energy Center began referring to it as the Massachusetts Marine Commerce Terminal rather than the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, prompting a spicy missive from the governor.

Baker was the first candidate in the debate to name-check the project by its local designation, and afterwards told reporters it made “perfect sense” to name it after the city. Coakley said she would support legislation to keep the New Bedford name and said it was of “symbolic” importance.

Patrick wrote an Oct. 9 letter to the New Bedford City Council saying only the Legislature has the power to name the terminal and claiming Mitchell was misrepresenting his intentions in a manner that was “not just perplexing but disappointing.” After the debate Mitchell told the News Service, “It shouldn’t even be an issue” and there is “no good justification” for changing the name.

On another local issue Coakley broke from the Patrick administration, which has repeatedly attempted to close the mental health beds at Taunton State Hospital, moving the care to a new facility in Worcester. Coakley said she wanted to keep the Taunton hospital open.

Baker said Coakley deserves some of the blame for a natural gas shortage, which is caused in part by the abundance of power plants that make use of the fuel. Natural gas is plentiful and cheap in warmer months when it is not diverted to heat homes, but prices spike in the winter. If the problem had been addressed years earlier by widening an existing pipeline then a current proposal to build a new pipeline would be “irrelevant,” Baker said.

Coakley said the issue was largely outside of state control, and cited her efforts as attorney general to fine Unitil and National Grid for their storm responses that left many without power for extended periods. She said, “The leaders of the organization were charging ratepayers for shipping wine back to Massachusetts and sending their kids to private school.”

Both candidates had differing diagnoses for what is impeding the Massachusetts economy. Baker said the grinding speed of permitting and complicated regulations holds businesses back, while Coakley focused on the need to have a trained and educated workforce. Baker said he agreed with Coakley that “one of our problems is matching skill capabilities to available jobs.”

When he launched his campaign more than a year ago, Baker said he would be more like himself than he was during his 2010 run. Coakley lost a high-profile bid for the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s former seat in 2010. Both candidates said they were enjoying themselves.

“I had a great time campaigning in 2010; I’m having a great time in ’14. The best part about political campaigns as a candidate is you have this great opportunity to walk across your state, travel around your state with this little card that says you’re running for governor, and you have a chance to talk to people about their hopes, their worries, their dreams, and what they’d like to see the Commonwealth of Mass. be all about,” Baker told reporters.

“I am having a great time… to be honest with you. Massachusetts is doing great stuff. I think Charlie Baker and I see a different Massachusetts. I’ve been attorney general for the last eight years. I’ve seen a tough economy. I’ve seen what we need to do. I’ve had a terrific education for the last 14 months talking to people who are optimistic, if they can get their kids early education, if they’re going to be able to get earned sick-time,” Coakley said.

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