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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley and Republican nominee Charlie Baker are both pledging support for the extension of commuter rail to the state's south coast region, but differ on what it would take to pay for the project.
Coakley and Baker discussed their visions for economic development in southeastern Massachusetts and statewide during a debate Friday at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.
Coakley, the attorney general, opposes a November ballot question that would repeal a state law that indexes the gasoline tax to inflation. Revenue from the gas tax helps fund transportation projects and maintenance on roads and bridges.
Baker called indexing a "red herring." He said the ballot question, which he supports, would not repeal the 3 cent increase in the tax that was approved by the Legislature last year, but would prevent the tax from going up automatically in the future.
"What it does repeal is this idea that the gas tax should go up every year forever ... without legislators ever having to vote on it again or being held accountable for that decision," Baker said.
Coakley said indexing the gas tax would provide a predictable revenue source for transportation projects such as the south coast rail.
"If you really do support it, you have to show how you are going to pay for it," said Coakley.
She said transportation projects, such as the south coast rail, have been on hold and basic maintenance on roads and bridges delayed because of the drain on resources caused by the financing of the massive Big Dig project in Boston. She noted that Baker, as state Secretary of Administration and Finance in the 1990s, helped draw up the Big Dig financing plan.
Baker said the plan was put together with bipartisan support from state lawmakers after the federal government pulled back on support for the Big Dig.
During the hour-long debate, Coakley and Baker also sparred over his economic plan, which he has said would cost up to $300 million a year, and touched on health care.
Coakley faulted Baker for not explaining where the money would come from to pay for his plan since he has said that he's opposed to new taxes and that increases in state revenue would go back to cities and towns in the form of local aid.
"That sounds like a bit of fuzzy math," Coakley said. "If we're going to have a fair debate on taxes, I think we should be honest about what we are proposing."
Baker defended his proposal, saying it includes earned income tax credits targeted at lower income individuals, help for veterans trying to find work, and rebuilding Main Streets across the state.
"Those are the kinds of things my economic development plan pays for," he said. "I think those are pretty good investments."
Baker also said he would help cut red tape for new businesses.
"Speed matters," he said. "We need to be more nimble. We need to support our employers."
On health care, Baker again said the way to bring down costs is to require health care providers to publicly post the cost of medical procedures so they can be held accountable.
Coakley said the state has to continue to move away from the old "fee for service" model, which she said has helped push up the cost of health care.
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