2nd Hampshire District candidates talk education, transportation, opioids

  • Dan Carey running for second Hampshire District State Rep Tuesday, July 17, 2018

  • Marie McCourt running for second Hampshire District State Rep Tuesday, July 17, 2018

  • John Hine running for second Hampshire District State Rep Tuesday, July 17, 2018

  • Left, Dan Carey, John Hine and Marie McCourt running for second Hampshire District State Rep Tuesday, July 17, 2018

  • Voters in Amherst precinct 4 at the Bangs Community Center got a sticker after visiting the polls Tuesday. KEVIN GUTTING

  • John Hine

Staff Writer
Published: 7/27/2018 12:27:51 AM

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the scope of Marie McCourt’s work. She is an assistant program director for grant-funded after-school programs with the Collaborative for Educational Services.

SOUTH HADLEY — Democratic candidates running for the 2nd Hampshire District seat fielded questions on Thursday night at the public library that revealed similarities in their stances on key issues in the race for the seat held by state Rep. John Scibak for the past 16 years.

At a forum sponsored by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, the League of Women Voters, and WHMP radio, the candidates — Easthampton City Councilor Dan Carey, former South Hadley Select Board member John Hine, and former Granby School Committee member Marie McCourt — agreed on issues including the state’s funding for education, treating the opioid epidemic as a health issue, and improving transportation for towns in the district.

Education

The candidates agreed that the state needs to restructure its formula for public education to adequately fund schools.

Hine, who served on various committees during his 12 years on the Select Board, said that since education reform in the mid-1990s, the state has failed to follow through on funding mandates to the tune of $1 billion.

“We will have inequities as long as we base school funding on local property taxes. That immediately creates an issue with some communities not being able to raise the funds that other wealthier communities do,” he said.

“I would work towards a different source of funding … I would look to shift away from property taxes, look at a graduated income tax and use that model for funding our schools.”

There is a lot of room for improvement in public education, Carey said, from pre-kindergarten through secondary education. Carey is an assistant district attorney and serves on both the Finance and Public Safety committees in Easthampton.

“The funding formula itself is absolutely a problem,” Carey said.

Referencing the same education reforms of the ’90s, he said there were supposed to be reviews every few years to ensure that the funding was working.

Those reviews “never really happened and now the problem has gotten bigger than anyone expected. The first thing is accountability … we have to make sure we not just talk about fixing the formula but we actually do it.”

McCourt said “the state has shortchanged us.” For the past 13 years, she has been an assistant program director for grant-funded after-school programs with the Collaborative for Educational Services, and previously served several terms as chairwoman of the Democratic Town Committee.

The property taxes used to pay for public education are “more than we can afford,” she said, with those hardest hit being the disadvantaged and elderly who “cannot afford to pay more.”

“It’s time to change the formula … and as someone from Granby who was on the School Committee for four years and literally fought with the town every year … I see it as my job to make sure that I am fighting so that my town, South Hadley, Easthampton, and Hadley, as well as the rest of Massachusetts, gets fair funding,” she said.

Opioid epidemic

When the candidates were asked how they would address one of the deadliest drug crises in American history, they agreed that education and treatment rather than the criminal justice system were part of the solution.

Carey, who is the former director of the drug diversion and treatment program for the district attorney’s office, said there are gains to be made in terms of treatment and recovery for those addicted to opioids. He said the first thing that has to be done is to “bridge treatment gaps” between services that are disconnected in order to provide services for those in various steps of recovery.

“Even if we put more improvements in place, the folks suffering from these substance abuse disorders will be dealing with them for the rest of their lives and will need recovery services possibly for the rest of their lives,” he said. “And supporting the workers who do this work is also so important.”

Education is a key component, McCourt said, not only for the public and the criminal justice system, but for doctors. There should not be a cap on Suboxone, a medication that helps with opiate withdrawals, to help people with their addiction, she said.

“We have to stop using the criminal justice system to solve the problem. It’s not solving the problem, it’s making it worse,” she said. “It’s a huge issue in our area because people are dying from this addiction.”

Hine said the opioid epidemic should be treated as a “health issue, not a criminal issue.” He agreed with McCourt in that there should not be a cap on Suboxone to treat patients.

Coordinating services among law enforcement, first responders, health care providers and social workers will be required to take care of the problem, as “all parties” have to help address this issue, he said.

“Let’s hold accountable the pharmaceuticals and the distributors that helped make this (epidemic),” Hine added.

Transportation

Candidates were also asked to describe the state of public transportation services in the towns within the district.

State money for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has not risen for the past several years, Hine said, which actually has reduced resources for PVTA as costs for the service have steadily risen.

“As a result, there have been cuts in routes and frequencies of those routes, so obviously funding is critical,” Hine said. “We need to make the investment in public transportation … to provide more service and frequency to get people to ride.”

It’s a “sad” state for public transportation in the district, Carey said. Granby no longer has a PVTA bus stop in town, he said, and it is a problem for elderly folks trying to get to doctor’s appointments and those who rely on the service for their work commute.

“We are not supporting them when we are cutting routes and we are raising prices and we are making it more and more difficult for everyone to use public transportation, especially for folks who really need it,” Carey said.

The east-west rail is really important for a lot of reasons, McCourt said. The state recently approved funding for an 18-month east-west rail study to determine the feasibility of a passenger train connecting Springfield to Boston.

“Not only because it will make it easier for people to get from here to Boston, but also people who live in Boston would be able to move back here, and that rolls around to the school problem,” McCourt said.

“If you have people moving back out here, they are going to bring their kids and the money follows their kids back to western Mass. and that really helps our schools. The east-west rail is really about economic development for the western part of the state.”

The 2nd Hampshire District consists of Easthampton, South Hadley, Hadley and part of Granby.

Thursday’s event was moderated by Katherine Campbell of the League of Women Voters. Serving as panelists were Franklin County LWV President Marie Gauthier, Gazette opinion editor Stanley Moulton, and WHMP radio host Bill Newman. Around 40 would-be constituents turned out for the forum in the library’s Community Room.

The Democratic primary will take place on Sept. 4. No candidates from other parties are seeking the seat.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com




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