Gubernatorial forum focuses on state's youth
Candidates all vow to invest in kids
All six gubernatorial candidates, Democrat and Republican, vowed yesterday to invest more money in kids, whether they be homeless and in trouble or high school graduates trying to afford college.
"I know from having worked in our juvenile justice system that for every dollar you invest in that particular system, you are saving thousands of dollars down the road," said Republican Kevin Smith of Litchfield. "But we don't sell that message enough to the public and to the Legislature."
Democrat Maggie Hassan of Exeter said if elected she'd reverse two recent Legislative decisions: one that lowered the cigarette tax, a loss of $16 million in state revenue, and another to drastically decrease state spending on higher education.
"(Lawmakers) might as well have said to young people, 'Smoke more, go to college less.' "
About 100 child advocates attended the forum in Concord, which was hosted by The Children's Alliance of New Hampshire, a nonprofit that promotes policies benefiting kids.
The three Republican candidates for governor attended: Smith and Ovide Lamontagne and Robert Tarr, both of Manchester. The three Democrats did as well: Hassan, Jackie Cilley of Barrington and Bill Kennedy of Danbury.
Organizers stressed the event was to be a discussion, not a debate, but Lamontagne sparked a passionate disagreement when he said a married, heterosexual couple was best suited for raising a successful child.
"I think, and I think you know, that experience teaches us that the best chance a child has to succeed in this life is to grow up in an intact nuclear family supported by a man and woman who are married to each other with a lifelong commitment," Lamontagne said. "That's the ideal, and we should not be embarrassed to talk about it."
Cilley was the first to respond.
"What a child needs more than anything else in this world are people who love them and care for them," she said to loud applause. "Whether that child is brought up in a single-family home, with two moms or two dads, or a mom and a dad, it's immaterial to me. That child belongs in our society and we help no matter what kind of family they come from."
Hassan also responded, recounting a conversation she had recently with a gay couple.
"They (said) that during the debate of the repeal (of gay marriage) this spring, their two adopted children asked them if the repeal passed whether they would have to be sent back," Hassan said. "Our families deserve to be together. Our children deserve parents and adults who love them. I am absolutely committed to making sure every Granite Stater can marry the person they love."
On spending priorities, there was little disagreement on what services needed the most support.
Nearly everyone cited mental health care, public school instruction and juvenile justice. In particular, the candidates criticized the Legislature's decision last year to halve the budget for the Children in Need of Services program, which intervenes on behalf of children who regularly skip school, run away from home or commit crimes.
The program used to serve 1,000 children annually. Now it can serve only 50.
When asked to name his spending priorities, Lamontagne, who with his wife has been a foster parent, named caring for juvenile victims of abuse and neglect.
"We need to make sure we have resources available in the judicial system to . . . have advocates for them and foster care opportunities to keep them safe," he said. "I think these are the most vulnerable of our children."
Cilley shared her own experience growing up poor in Berlin and being unable to attend college until she was 29. Fully funding public education is critical, Cilley said, to making children successful.
To that, Cilley added, paying parents a fair wage, allowing them to unionize and bargain with employers, and ensuring they and their children have access to affordable health care.
"It's insufficient to say, 'We stand with you,' " Cilley told the audience. "It's time to put our actions where our words are."
The candidates differed over how they'd pay for these expenses.
Smith, Lamontagne and Tarr favored the joining of public and private efforts, especially around education and juvenile justice. Cilley and Kennedy said it was time for the state to talk about adopting an income or sales tax, saying it was fairer than the existing property tax.
Tarr suggested a reduction in business taxes and a new tax credit for businesses willing to take on high school students as apprentices.
Hassan, Smith and Cilley emphasized the need to create a skilled work force that would attract businesses to the state. Additional businesses would create new jobs, and both would help grow the economy, they said.
The state could then use that additional tax revenue to invest in education and child services that will keep young, skilled people in the state. They cited the New Hampshire's high tuition rates as a prime reason young people leave the state.
Smith said studies show New Hampshire is losing its 18-year-old to 34-year-old population faster than any other state in the country.
"Businesses look to see what the skilled labor force is like in any particular state," he said. "And right now they are looking at New Hampshire and saying you are losing your skilled labor."