Republican state Rep. Steven Howitt and Democratic challenger A. Keith Carreiro laid out their plans for the upcoming legislative session in an election debate at the Norton Cable TV studio. The two are running for the seat representing the 4th Bristol District, which includes Seekonk.
The debate questions covered issues ranging from what it means to be a state representative to the medical use of marijuana. Norton Town Moderator Bill Gouveia mediated the debate. Here is where they stand on each issue:
What does it mean to be a state representative?
Carreiro said he would use his networking and communication skills to get the job done and set up a satellite office in the district so he could meet with residents and discuss their concerns. He said he would spend 25 percent of his time in this office.
"The job of a state representative is not only to help the people in one's district in terms of immediate needs but to set up policy," Carreiro said. "And the policy is set upon a vision that one has for the people that is directly related to the people."
He added that he has more than 40 years of building collaborative, networking and communication skills as a teacher and school committee member that could be used in this capacity.
Howitt said his job is to vote and initiate legislation while being an advocate for the towns. He listed availability for constituents as the most important duty.
"I'm out and about with people and they see me," Howitt said. "Unfortunately, dealing with some of the state agencies can be difficult at times, but we cut through the red tape."
Howitt, a former Seekonk selectman, was elected state representative in 2010. He serves on the Transportation, Licensing and Tourism committees.
Does being a Republican or Democrat matter at this level? What differences does party affiliation make in terms with ability to serve constituents?
Howitt said even though his party is greatly outnumbered in the state legislature, the main focus is to get the job done.
"For the most part, we all consider ourselves colleagues," he said. "While there are differences, in the end it's about the constituents."
Carreiro said there is a tremendous difference between the two parties.
"What I'm seeing happen to the Republican party on a national level even right down into the local levels is that they are swinging to the extreme right," he said. "In so many issues that have already been discussed in the national elections, I see that filtering down to the local level."
What would you do to make sure area towns are protected and even benefit from a casino?
Carreiro said, "I would make sure all stakeholders are involved in the discussion. I think it’s very, very important that the towns are involved. Not just the inner towns themselves, for example Taunton, but the surrounding towns and that they play a vital role."
Howitt voted with the speaker and majority of the house for expanded gaming and against the compact.
"The south county is sort of the stepchild of Massachusetts and there were no time limits on that compact," he said. "We felt like we needed to know at some point when that compact would go into effect."
To protect towns, Howitt said he would continue discussions with towns to get them involved in decisions.
What is your stance on per diem payments?
Carreiro is not in favor of per diem payments, especially in this economy.
"In 2011, representatives collected a total of $362,981," he said. "The Beacon Hill Roll Call also reported a few weeks ago that state senators in 2011 collected $63,918 in per diems. I've never been paid to commute to work back and forth, and I also know the very idea of a per diem is outrageous, especially when thousands of workers are losing their jobs and their homes or are a paycheck away from disaster.
He continued, "I would like to see that money returned back to the state and used for a better reason."
Howitt noted he accepted per diem payments, and would continue to do that in the future. He explained that he uses the money to make donations to various town causes, such as $500 to the elderly in Seekonk, $500 to Norton's energy assistance program, $500 to the Rehoboth food pantry and $500 to veterans in Swansea.
"And that's just the start of it," Howitt said. "If I didn't take that money, it would go back into the general fund. This way, I know directly it's going to people in my district that need it and I'm very proud to give it to them."
How would you ensure integrity and leadership and restore confidence in state government?
Although it was rejected, Howitt attempted to put an ethics bill forward.
"I think if we had more Republicans to balance that legislature, that would be a good overseer of power," he added.
Carreiro said the key is transparency. He wants strict regulation on the open meeting law, including at the state legislature, which Howitt disagrees with.
"I can’t see the application at the state House," Howitt said.
Should county government be eliminated here as a cost savings or efficiency measure?
Carreiro said regionalization of some services is a good cost saver. Howitt agreed that in some ways that makes sense.
"Unfortunately, our county government is very archaic and I think we really have to look at it to see whether we can save money, and if so, we should," Howitt said.
What can state legislature do to provide quality education?
Howitt said towns need additional funds and should increase Chapter 70 funding.
"The state seems to want to stick their nose into the local school committees, the local school departments, and sometimes it isn't the best thing," Howitt said. "We need to have more localized control over the money."
Carreiro said full funding is needed and hiring great teachers is vital.
"I see the legislature making movement toward restoring power to the local committee or local school board," said Carreiro, noting that teacher evaluations are part of that.
He also added that he supports further funding for higher education institutions.
Should medical marijuana be legal?
When it comes to Question 3 on the ballot, Carreiro is for the medical use of marijuana.
'I think that we need every treatment available," said Carreiro, explaining that he watched his father suffer. "If this issue can help relieve even one hour of someone's pain, it's well worth it."
Howitt agreed that medical marijuana can reduce pain for patients, but plans to vote against the measure.
"There are some flaws in the ballot question," he said. "The ID card has no expiration date and there would be no consistency in the product itself."
How do you cut taxes and maintain services?
Howitt said it is important to cut the waste, such as abuse and fraud using EBT cards.
"If we cut out the abuse and fraud, it means that there's more money to give out to the people in need," he said.
While Howitt said he does not believe increasing taxes is the answer, Carreiro suggested restoring the 1999 income tax rate of 5.95 percent and increasing the tax rate on dividend and interest income. He would also support bills raising the minimum wage and supporting a green economy.
Howitt and Carreiro will next debate 1 p.m. Monday in Fall River at the Herald-News offices, pending the hurricane does not interfere.