2nd Hampshire District candidates air food security, wage issues

  • From left, Dan Carey, John Hine and Marie McCourt, who are Democratic candidates running for the 2nd Hampshire District seat, listen to a question during a forum Wednesday at the South Hadley Public Liibrary. The three are competing in the Sept. 4 primary for the seat held by state Rep. John Scibak of South Hadley for the past 16 years. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/23/2018 12:00:15 AM

SOUTH HADLEY — The race for longtime state Rep. John Scibak’s seat in the Statehouse is among three candidates who share similar views on several issues facing their district, and voters will be pressed to find areas where they disagree.

In a third forum held at the South Hadley Public Library, this time sponsored by the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in collaboration with Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, the candidates — Easthampton City Councilor Dan Carey, former South Hadley Select Board member John Hine, and former Granby School Committee member Marie McCourt — faced three rounds of questioning in front of an audience of about 25.

First they answered questions from Scibak, who has held the 2nd Hampshire District seat for the past 16 years. The second round featured a spin wheel with a range topics, and a final round of questions came from the public.

Throughout the night, the candidates, all Democrats, made clear the importance of food security for the district and they affirmed their commitment to fight for increased funding for programs such as the Healthy Incentive Program (HIP) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides monthly benefits to buy food for low-income residents.

As Scibak explained, HIP allows SNAP recipients to maximize their benefits by offering dollar-for-dollar reimbursements to participants if they purchase food and vegetables at farm markets, farm share programs, and farm stands.

Even with only 7 percent of SNAP recipients using the HIP program, Scibak said, it ran out of funding in April and required supplemental funding to continue.

All three candidates said they recognized the importance of these programs and stated they would work to increase funding if elected to the Statehouse.

“It’s not a matter of just providing food, but healthy food,” Hine said of HIP. “It also helps our local farmers. It gives them an opportunity to have another market for their crops and goods.”

McCourt agreed that SNAP and HIP require increased funding, and took it a step further. She said that those programs should be “codified” into state law to ensure people have the option to use HIP at farm stands and farmers markets.

Carey noted that the HIP program is a “huge success,” but due to its popularity, the state ran out of money to support it. Indicating the program’s success, he said SNAP recipients spent $89,000 in Hampshire County, and that farms took in over $100,000 from people coming to their farm stands.

When prompted to share their thoughts on the recently passed $15 minimum wage by Gov. Charlie Baker, which will phase in over five years, the candidates agreed that it is a positive step but expressed reservations on its impact.

Carey said the wage raise will not be the “end-all, be-all solution.” He said the most important part is to continue to “keep an eye on it” to ensure that the minimum wage keeps up with the rising cost of living, but it is a “great first step.”

The rise in the minimum wage will not resolve the living wage issue, Hine said. He raised his concern of “unintended consequences,” such as making it more difficult for teenagers to get a summer job or for someone to be hired in a training position.

“We need to educate our work force,” Hine said. “We need to give people the skills to go after good paying jobs, and there are good-paying jobs out there.”

McCourt said those “unintended consequences” can be solved through single-payer insurance by helping small businesses save money on health insurance so they can afford to provide a living wage and not just the $15-an-hour minimum wage. As for job opportunities, she said college students leave the area to find jobs that pay a higher wage elsewhere.

“We have a highly educated workforce in this area. What we don’t have are the jobs and high-tech job training that we need to have jobs that make life more affordable,” McCourt said.

Policy priorities

Each candidate had the opportunity to state his or her top policy priority towards the end of the forum.

For McCourt, the need for improved public transportation in the region is “very important,” and she said municipalities should have “localized control” to use revenues to provide local transportation. She added that the lack of public transportation options — there are none for residents in Granby and South Hadley Falls — are contributing to “huge” inequities in the district.

Carey said fixing the funding formula for public education would be his No. 1 priority. The problem is that it is so old, Carey said, with major changes in special education and English language learning not being taken into account.

Hine said rising health care costs need to be addressed now. He said he would want to join the Joint Committee on Health Care Financing to help encourage quality care as well as keeping people healthy.

In closing the forum, Scibak said he chose to not endorse any of the three candidates in the race back in June because all three “are qualified, competent, and could easily do the job to replace me.”

“I feel even stronger about that position,” he said after having attended the past three candidate forums.

Carey is an assistant Northwest district attorney, Easthampton city councilor, and has served on Easthampton’s School Committee and Fiannce Committee. He is also the former director of the Drug Diversion & Treatment Program Director for the Northwestern District Attorney’s office.

Hine is a senior business analyst at Baystate Health and has served onvarious town committees in South Hadley during his 12 years on the Select Board.

McCourt is an assistant program director for the Collaborative for Educational Services, serves on the executive board for Neighbors Helping Neighbors, and served two terms on the Granby School Committee.

The district includes Easthampton, Granby, Hadley and South Hadley.

The Democratic primary is Sept. 4.

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