The two candidates for Congresswoman Katherine Clark’s former state Senate seat placed a heavy focus on how the state can maintain a balanced budget while increasing local aid during a televised debate on March 12.
State Rep. Jason Lewis, D-Winchester, and Melrose Alderman-at-Large Monica Medeiros, the Republican candidate, are hoping to be elected to represent the 5th Middlesex Senate District in the special election on April 1.
The district covers Malden, Melrose, Reading, Stoneham, Wakefield and precincts 1, 2, 3 and 8 in Winchester.
Wakefield Community Access Television filmed the debate, which started off with the candidates almost in agreement on raising the minimum wage. Lewis agreed with the increase; Medeiros is open to looking at an increase.
Fees and taxes
Both Lewis and Medeiros think the most pressing issue currently facing lawmakers on Beacon Hill is managing a balanced budget with increased local aid.
The debate heated up when they differed on issues such as the 10 percent fee increase at the Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV), tying the gas tax to inflation and funding for the MBTA.
Medeiros said that because of how new the RMV increases are, she’s not sure yet whether the fee hikes are justified, while Lewis argued that the state’s infrastructure is crumbling, and fees are part of addressing the problem.
"There’s no free lunch," Lewis said. "If we want to have a good public infrastructure, and that’s very important to our economy, we have to be able to pay for it."
Medeiros struck back in her rebuttal, criticizing Lewis for agreeing to a gas tax increase as well as to legislation that links the tax to inflation — which she said will allow the gas tax to annually increase without a vote from the Legislature. Medeiros said she opposes increasing the tax and linking it to inflation, and supports legislative accountability.
However, Lewis said it is time for the increase.
"The reality is the gas tax in Massachusetts had not been raised since 1991, so when you account for inflation in real terms, we’re paying far, far less today in the gas tax than we were in 1991," Lewis said.
Medeiros disagreed, saying the continual increase will affect people across the board.
"Every time we increase this [tax], we’re affecting our businesses, the cost of goods and how individuals pay at the pump," Medeiros said. "Tying it automatically to inflation takes away the accountability that the legislators should have in deciding whether or not to vote to increase the tax."
Lewis responded by saying Massachusetts businesses approached legislators to vocalize a need to increase funding for transportation systems, and they felt increasing the gas tax was a way to do that. He asked Medeiros how else she would fund transportation infrastructure if she is not willing to raise the gas tax.
Later in the debate, Lewis said the repeal of the gas tax increase would take away from necessary MBTA funding. He pointed out that public transportation on the MBTA is critical to the 5th Middlesex District — it’s how people get to work, shopping, school and the doctor.
Lewis said that last year the Legislature took action to require funding for the MBTA, as well as require reforms to improve efficiency and function.
Medeiros suggested the state could look toward combining the MBTA’s pension system with the state pension system.
Local aid
Lewis and Medeiros agreed the state’s local aid formula needs to be changed.
Lewis said public education funding is one of the main issues that prompted him to run for state representative five years ago. He said the Chapter 70 local aid formula that was put in place 20 years ago is now out of date, and he wants to change it.
"That has been one of my top priorities in the House and would continue to be a top priority in the Senate," Lewis said.
Medeiros said that, like every candidate who has run for office before her, she too wants to change the formula.
"My opponent has been there [in the Legislature] for five years and the formula has not changed," she said.
Medeiros said the law was put in place to benefit more urban communities such as Boston and Chelsea, but that now lawmakers must focus on all the communities — though not at the expense of areas that need extra help, such as Malden.
Voting law reforms
While both candidates expressed their disappointment with low voter turnout in last week’s primary election, they held opposing beliefs on voting law reforms.
Medeiros was against same-day voter registration, stating that while she understands the desire to increase voter participation, this approach would open the door to fraud. She also opposes early voting, noting that it limits the candidates’ chance to reach voters.
Lewis said he is open to many reforms that could encourage more people to vote, including same-day registration and pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds.
He would not support a measure requiring voters to show identification at polls, emphasizing that this may discourage seniors who no longer possess driver’s licenses or students without identification from voting.
Medeiros did not have a problem with this measure, saying citizens need identification for many other things, and she did not think it would disenfranchise voters.
Marijuana use
Both candidates spoke out against the recreational use of marijuana, saying that substance abuse in their communities is a problem.
In terms of medical marijuana, Lewis and Medeiros agreed that the best they can do is make sure local communities are properly zoned and that dispensaries are well regulated, if any fall in their districts.