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Sep 8, 2016 6:36 PM

Democratic gubernatorial contenders clash at NH1 News debate

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD – The three top Democratic candidates for governor disagreed over a host of issues on Thursday, as they faced off in an NH1 News debate.

The showdown between Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, Mark Connolly, who served nearly a decade as New Hampshire’s top financial watchdog, and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, was the last TV debate in the race for the Corner Office before Tuesday’s primary.

The three candidates didn’t see eye to eye over the business profits tax, the gas tax, the tobacco tax, the Northern Pass transmission lines, and legalizing marijuana. And Connolly criticized Van Ostern for touting he "cast the deciding vote" to implement Medicaid expansion.

That moment occurred at the start of the debate, during a discussion of the state's heroin and opioid epidemic.

"When we extended Medicaid health care coverage to 50,000 people. It was an extraordinary effort. It took a lot of work from a lot of people. I was proud to cast the deciding vote to implement that. That also brought $608 million into our state and thousands of those people are getting treatment, specifically for substance misuse disorder, Van Ostern said.

Speaking moments later, Connolly took aim at his rival.

"I will say Colin with all due respect, you said you were the deciding vote on Medicaid Expansion. Medicaid expansion is important here. It address almost 40% of the problem in terms of people who were addicted but this is the legislature who did this. You voted on the contract. So to say that you were the deciding vote was a little bit of an exaggeration," Connolly said.

Van Ostern pushed back, saying "I’m proud to be the one person, Democrat or Republican, who was part of that process. And part of that progress. It took a determined governor, even after it failed twice. One of those times I worked with her to ask the legislature to come back to a special session to deal with it. It took bipartisan compromise. And then it came down to a three-to-two vote to get it done. And if that had been a two-to-three vote, 49,660 people wouldn’t have the health care coverage they have right now."

Connolly and Marchand clashed a few minutes later, over legalizing recreational marijuana.

After Connolly and Van Ostern urged caution in the push for legalization, Marchand criticized both of them.

"You heard in different ways from both of my opponents just now a seemingly inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Mark mentioned that we have to work with the opioid crisis and then we could deal with marijuana and they’re not concurrent. I would argue one of the tactics towards dealing with the heroin and opioid crisis is the legalization of marijuana for the reason I said earlier, because 80% of people who use heroin started on prescription opioids," he said.

In one of the more heated moments in the debate, Connolly returned fire.

"I was in state government for 15 years Steve. And I will tell you with all due respect, you haven’t been in state service and it takes a lot of input from the departments, the towns, the cities, the people who actually implement these things. And to say we’re going to legalize a framework, I think is short sighted quite frankly. And I will tell you in my 15 years in state government, I’ve realized that there are priorities that you have to take on as governor and I think we can do this but when we hear people like (Colorado) Gov. Hickenlooper say that he recommends that states that are thinking about doing it, take some time and learn from the experience, I think that’s something we should heed and take," Connolly said.

Disagreements over tobacco, gas, and business taxes

Marchand, who's campaign organization pales to that of Van Ostern or Connolly, has been the most vocal candidate in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race. And he fired away at his two rival again, this time over raising the cigarette tax.

Discussing how to pay for full-day kindergarten, Van Ostern said "we are funding half the cost of kindergarteners. That’s why many communities only have half day kindergarten. But they don’t cost any less. And arguably they are the most important of our kids, so that they can start on an even playing field with every other child, we need to fund the full cost that we do for every other student and it will cost around $13 million a year. That is roughly the amount of money that we could raise if our cigarette taxes, which would still be lower than every other state in New England, we’re a dime a pack more."

A moment later Marchand weighed in, saying of his rivals that "both favor raising the tobacco tax by ten cents a pack. I have said repeatedly that I think that is a very back idea for public policy. The only way you raise the revenue that they hope to raise is if people continue to smoke. I think it’s a regressive tax."

Responding, Connolly said "in the economic classes that I took if you increase a tax on something, demand usually goes down. But let me say this, certainly if we have the lowest tobacco tax in New England, which we do, and we have an opioid crisis, which we’ve talked about, increasing the cigarette tax by a dime and putting that into the opioid crisis just makes good public policy sense."

The candidates were also asked whether sex education should be mandated in public schools, and if so, at what age.

"I believe that it should and at what age should be decided not by politicians but by educators," Van Ostern answered.

Marchand said that "sex education is appropriate. It should be mandated. The exact age should be taken care of at the local school district level."

There was a similar answer from Connolly, who said "certainly education about sex is important. Mandated, yes. But also has to have input from the communities and the parents."

There was disagreement when it came to taxes.

Asked whether the business profits tax, which was raised this year, should be left alone, raised, or lowered, Connolly said "I think we should let it go for a while and see what happens."

He also favored raising the state's gas tax.

Marchand said "I would increase the gas tax."

But he urged a lowering of the business profits tax, saying "I think it would be shameful if the Democratic nominee for governor in affect embraced the same position that Chris Sununu or Ted Gatsas has on reducing the business profits tax."

Van Ostern argued for keeping both taxes steady.

"One of the lessons I learned I the private sector is predictability is one of the things that businesses depend on most in their government. We’ve made significant recent changes to both just in the past recent years. I don’t think we should be making more changes and cause more unpredictability for our business or our drivers or our citizens."

On the proposed Northern Pass hydroelectric project, which would bring power from Canada, Van Ostern said "I’m not going to be closed minded about this. If they’re willing to bury the thing then I think we should look" at the project.

Marchand touted that "I’m the only candidate 100% opposed to Northern Pass. Even if you bury it, it doesn’t help rate payers in New Hampshire."

And he described lines as "a super highway with no exit ramps and it just happens to go right through New Hampshire."

Connolly shot back, saying "I don’t’ agree with that characterization."

"I think we bury these lines as much as possible. I’m not sure they can bury all of them," he added.

And he said "just to dismiss this" is wrong.

The candidates disagreed late in the debate when asked whether they would, as governor, advocate for a state ban on high power, high capacity weapons, if no federal ban were imposed.

Connolly touted that "I was the first candidate on either side to come out and say we need to do this."

Marchand said "certainly I’m open to it. We need to try to do this in cooperation with our neighbors as much as possible. I live in Portsmouth. If we put a ban in in New Hampshire, if somebody wants to go across the bridge to Kittery and they have a separate law that is significantly different it would obviously not have the intended effect."

Regarding a ban, Van Ostern said "I think that should be a last resort."

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