Relatively Civil Debate In Chicopee As Mass. Dems Debate Casinos, Taxes, Immigration

The three Democratic candidates for Massachusetts governor gathered in Chicopee Wednesday night. There was little back-and forth among them as they make their final push ahead of the September 9th primary.

WATCH: Democratic candidates for governor debate on WWLP-TV

Among the more contentious issues debated during the hour-long forum at the studios of WWLP-TV was illegal immigration. Attorney General Martha Coakley blamed the federal government for the lack of a solution. She says she favors in-state tuition for undocumented aliens, and is warming up to the idea of allowing them to have driver’s licenses.

“I’ve said that I would appoint a director of immigrant and community safety to help me deal with what we’re doing in Massachusetts our federal partners, and looking at how we deal with these issues that other states have dealt with,” Coakley says.

That tepid statement led to a direct response from State Treasurer Steve Grossman.

“The best you’ve been able to say, Martha, is that you support potential access to drivers licenses,” Grossman says. “I support licenses for all immigrants as a public safety issue.”

Former Obama Administration health care official Don Berwick says he supports all benefits for illegal immigrants, and also took the opportunity to lecture his two rivals.

‘Well, you’re hearing the bickering, politics as usual, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, ‘You changed your mind. No, you didn’t,’” Berwick says. “We need a new direction. we need  firm commitment to the basic values of human rights and social justice and equality.”

Another subject discussed at the debate was how Massachusetts can raise more revenue. Grossman says one way to accomplish that is to create more jobs. But he says tax increases are possible for some residents.

“What you do is to hold harmless low and middle-income families using exemptions, the property tax circuit breaker and the earned income tax credit,” Grossman says.

Berwick’s campaign has been centered on a call for single-payer health care. He says that could go a long way in saving the state money.

“Health care is 42 percent of our budget. At least 30 percent of it is waste. Half that waste is paperwork,” Berwick says. “That’s one of the reasons I stand for single-payer healthcare. I’m the only candidate standing for it. It’s a way to get money back for public uses.”

When asked about cutting real-estate taxes, Coakley says they are important to the budgets of already cash-strapped communities.

“We depend upon that tax right now for schools, for police, for fire,” Coakley says. “I actually think that the state has to play a bigger role, and be a better partner, particularly to make sure communities are treated fairly.”

The candidates also discussed the ballot question on repealing the state’s casino law. They were asked about Republican candidate Charlie Baker’s statement that — if the law is repealed — he would file legislation allowing for a casino in Springfield anyway.

Grossman says while he is against the repeal effort, he doesn’t agree with Baker, either.

“The will of the people is important here,” Grossman says. “If the people of Massachusetts decide in this ballot question on the 4th of November that they do not want casinos, then I think we have to respect the will of the people. To me, that’s what democracy is all about.”

Coakley says she, too, is against the casino repeal, but hasn’t decided if she would support separate legislation keeping alive Springfield’s casino plans.

Berwick says he remains against casinos all together.

“Casinos kill jobs,” Berwick says. “Listen to me: Casinos destroy communities. They shutter small businesses. They cause increases in public safety problems, DUI, petty crime.  They’re predators on the poor.”

The candidates did agree on several things. They all said the troubled Department of Children and Families needs more funding and resources. All three also are waiting to see what happens in Colorado and Washington before deciding about legalizing marijuana for recreational use.