The six Democrats vying for their party’s nomination in the 8th Essex District primary election on Tuesday, Sept. 6 disagreed little at a recent public forum hosted by the Marblehead League of Women Voters.
The event, staged before a modest crowd of voters in the Marblehead High School library and recorded by MHTV, was moderated by former Marblehead Reporter editor Chris Stevens.
With no Republican on the September ballot, the primary election’s Democratic victor is almost certain (barring a successful blitz write-in campaign) to be the successor to former state rep. Lori Ehrlich and will represent a district composed of Marblehead, Swampscott and a sliver of Lynn.
Ehrlich, of Marblehead, held the post for 14 years until she joined the Biden Administration as the Federal Emergency Management Administrations Region 1 administrator on Jan. 31.
The night played out more like a civil conversation among like minds than opponents competing in a primary election. Undecided Democrats and unenrolled voters seeking distinction among candidates were left to find it in candidates’ leadership styles and professional experience.
The two-hour forum covered a lot of ground, everything from education and climate change to Beacon Hill transparency and the housing crisis.
Unfunded mandates were a revisited topic. Candidates agreed the state (and/or federal) government should contribute more money to alleviate costs shouldered by the district’s taxpayers.
The Kings Beach conundrum
The poster child for what candidates saw as unfunded mandates was the mitigation of the sewage pollution at Kings Beach.
“It’s mind boggling how tedious and expensive that project is,” said candidate Polly Titcomb, a former member of the Swampscott Select Board. “Swampscott is looking at a $20 million project to fix the underground piping, and Lynn is looking at least double that cost.”
Ehrlich, state Sen. Brendon Crighton and Congressman Seth Moulton secured funding in their own capacities for the protracted, behemoth project, but candidates said more is needed.
“It’s just not fair,” said candidate Diann Slavit Baylis, an immigration attorney. “They got $5 million for it last year to start the cleanup, and that’s a great start, but someone has got to be there in front of the state legislature and be the cheerleader and make sure they know this is not OK.”
State funding will also be needed to help reinforce the district’s coastline as sea levels rise and Nor’easters batter seawalls, candidates said.
Under state and federal law, communities are responsible for providing every child in their district with a “free and appropriate” public education until they reach the age of 21. This includes students with a variety of developmental and physical disabilities.
When a school district cannot provide a child with the necessary services, it must place the student in an out-of-district and pay for their transportation and tuition. A single out-of-district placement can range from “a low of $40,000 to a high of over $300,000 for a private residential placement,” according to Swampscott’s Fiscal Year 2022 budget.
While no one disagreed children are entitled to a proper education, candidates believed the state should do more to financially support districts in this area.
This annual cost is volatile because districts do not know how many children with special needs they will need to serve until after it completes its budget process. To create a buffer to deal with the unpredictability, Marblehead and Swampscott have created revolving funds.
“I talked to somebody who works in education in Swampscott,” said candidate Jenny Armini, a speech writer and co-founder of the grassroots political group ElectBlue. “She was telling me how gobsmacked she was because the cost of transporting the student was more than the education itself with this particular child. Districts need way more help with special education and the associated costs.”
Communities’ state appropriation for supporting schools districts, known as Chapter 70 funds, is mostly tied to student population and demographics.
“There’s a feeling that Chapter 70 maybe isn’t equitable, and that we’re not getting our fair share for our students,” said candidate Tristan Smith, a teacher and coach. “I’m going to call for an annual review of Chapter 70 to see if it needs to be a major overhaul or a retooling.”
All expressed support for the Fair Share Amendment, a binding referendum appearing on the November ballot. The question’s passage would amend the Massachusetts Constitution, creating a 4 percent surcharge on the portion of a person’s annual income above $1 million.
If voters approve it, the new “millionaires’ tax” would raise $2 billion in new revenue annually, earmarked for education and transportation in the Bay State.
Affordability and housing crisis
Swampscott resident Doug Thompson, whose experience as a healthcare executive includes serving as chief financial officer for MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, said the crisis with housing affordability is a matter of supply and demand and, to some degree, created by communities themselves.
“The prices go up,” he said. “We need to be investing in more housing of all types.”
Thompson said the average valuation of some single-family homes in Swampscott and Marblehead has swelled to $900,000. As cities and towns raised property taxes to the maximum extent allowed under Proposition 2 1/2 to fund services, seniors on fixed incomes can find it hard to remain in communities in which they’ve lived for years, while younger people can be priced out of moving into the communities where they work.
“While lots of great state programs may be helpful… what we can control is our own internal zoning, and particularly accessory dwelling units or in-law apartments,” he said. “We have a plethora of very large, single-family homes in these communities.”
Terri Tauro, assistant to the Marblehead harbormaster and the president of a consortium of the town’s unions, said more effort should be placed into helping people navigating public assistance programs from health insurance to public housing.
“Has anyone ever filled out a MassHealth application? It’s like this,” said Tauro as she held her fingers up to underscore its thickness. “You get one thing wrong, and it’s rejected.”
She added, “The immediate need in our district for our people to have help navigating the system.”
Beacon Hill transparency
Legislative progress on pressing issues often stalls due to a dearth of transparency on Beacon Hill, Thompson said.
“[It] is why I’m not taking any lobbyists’ money in this race,” he said. “And it’s why I think we need to make big improvements in the State House and transparency to address these big problems.”
Massachusetts’ open meeting and public records laws routinely cause the state to be ranked among the least transparent in the country. State lawmakers can conduct committee meetings behind closed doors, where their votes can remain secret.
“I find that to be outrageous that [committee votes] are not public,” Armini said.
Candidates nodded their heads in agreement when she called for an independent Beacon Hill research service, which would serve state lawmakers as the Congressional Research Service does federal lawmakers.
“Legislators have to turn to lobbyists to get basic information about the bills they’re working on,” she said. “There is no place a legislator can go and get independent analysis, whether it’s budget analysis or policy analysis. There used to be one, but there isn’t anymore.”
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