METHUEN — Democrat Diana DiZoglio and Republican Karin Rhoton drew clear lines over income taxes in their first two debates, though both candidates said they would advocate for state funding for local aid and education.
Both also agreed the sales tax should revert back to 5 percent in a nod to the competition local retailers and businesses face with neighboring sales tax-free New Hampshire. The two women are running for the 14th Essex state House seat that includes parts of Methuen, North Andover, Lawrence and Haverhill.
“I want to make sure to keep money in your pocket,” Rhoton, a former North Andover School Committee member, told a gathering of students at a debate yesterday morning at Methuen High School.
Methuenite DiZoglio said she supported reducing the sales tax, but said the state could not cut revenue substantially and still provide local aid, education and transportation funding to communities.
“I would love to roll back every tax and say we could get rid of them all and keep our programs,” she said. “But if we don’t have tax money coming in, we don’t have money for projects like the high school.”
Rhoton said the Legislature should reduce the state income tax rate to 5 percent as it was instructed by voters to do in a 2000 referendum. “I think the vote we took to roll back the income tax to 5 percent should be heard,” she said.
After that referendum, the Legislature cut the income tax rate from 5.85 percent to 5.3 percent, where it has remained for years. DiZoglio said she wanted to leave the rate where it is for now because the funding is needed for education and infrastructure.
Both candidates supported returning the sales tax rate to 5 percent. DiZoglio said the rate was raised in response to the financial crisis, which reduced tax revenue to the state government. Now that the recession has eased, the rate could be lowered again.
Additionally, reducing the sales tax is an important way to help families, and to help businesses near the New Hampshire border, Rhoton said. “More people are going over the border to Salem instead of going to the Loop (to shop),” she said.
DiZoglio said that new state revenue generated by gambling profits should be directed toward communities and education. “I’m going to bat for that to come back as local aid,” she said.
Casinos permitted by a 2010 change in state law are still in the early development stage, and tax revenue on gambling would not be realized for at least several years.
Students at Methuen High yesterday morning asked the candidates several questions, including how each would support the state’s transportation system. Rhoton criticized the MBTA, saying its finances and salaries need to be reviewed, and service and quality needs to be improved before commuters will use the system.
DiZoglio said the MBTA needs more oversight and accountability and that “the system needs to be fixed.” Funding for road maintenance and construction is also a priority for transportation and economic reasons. “Transportation is key to making sure there are jobs,” she said.
Students also asked the candidates about pension liabilities and how cities and towns should deal with meeting those obligations. Local communities have hundreds of millions of dollars in total pension obligations, Rhoton said, and no plan for dealing with the issue.
“We need to address the retirement age, and who qualifies,” she said, adding that pensioners should not be able to collect while working other jobs or getting state benefits like unemployment insurance.
DiZoglio said the interests of state taxpayers should balanced with fulfilling promises made to public employees, and said the pension law passed last year, which bumped up the retirement age for new hires and changed the pension formula, had some good reforms in it. “We need to make sure we’re taking care of the taxpayers, and taking care of our workers,” she said.
The first of the two debates was held at Methuen Community TV Tuesday evening and broadcast live. The second was held at the Methuen High School field house in front of a group of students. High school Principal James Giuca said the debate provided a live civics lesson in local and state politics.
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