Editorial: Big debate for a rapidly graying state

  • The audience watches a gubernatorial debate between Democratic nominee Colin Van Ostern and Republic nominee Chris Sununu on Sept. 21 at Saint Anselm College. AP

Published: 10/5/2016 3:05:02 AM

We can’t help but take note that tonight, two young men, Democrat Colin Van Ostern, 37, and Republican Chris Sununu, 41, will try to convince a television audience that they should be elected governor of New Hampshire – a state on a collision course with old age.

The candidates, both businessmen and parents, praise the value of working and raising a family in New Hampshire. They also know that by 2030, more than one-quarter of our population will be over 65, according to the most recent state statistics. Young people aren’t staying here, newcomers aren’t moving in at the rapid rate of the 1980s and the population under age 15 is shrinking. Experts have warned about the impact on the New Hampshire advantage – our economy, businesses, schools, taxes and revenue.

How will we meet the ballooning health care needs of the elderly? How will young workers and families – the much sought after millennials – be persuaded to come and stay in the Granite State? Voters – young and not so young – deserve some answers at tonight’s debate at New England College, co-sponsored by the Monitor and broadcast at 7 p.m. on New England Cable News.

We expect the predictable clashes between Van Ostern and Sununu about funding for Planned Parenthood and extension of Medicaid health care for the poor, which they took up as members of the Executive Council. But, with the Silver Tsunami headed straight at us, we want to hear some real plans for the future.

Schools are determining factor for newcomers thinking about settling down in New Hampshire. Despite decades of school funding lawsuits, our dependence on property taxes still means that the quality of your schools depends on where you live. Forget any new revenue – both candidates would veto an income or sales tax. Both have indicated support for restoring some school building aid. They both want to give local school districts more say in standardized testing.

Sununu backs “unrestricted school choice,” which he needs to explain, and wants more support for public charter schools. Van Ostern sees charter schools as a source for innovative education, but wants to ensure that funds are not siphoned off from local public schools.

Van Ostern wants funding for full-day kindergarten, paid for with an increase to the cigarette tax. It’s a solid proposal that would surely appeal to workforce parents – right now only 90 communities have full-day programs, and the locals pay half the cost.

We do like Sununu’s proposal, although short on details, to help students pay off debt if they stay in New Hampshire and work as teachers, nurses or aides for the elderly and others. “You invest in us, we’ll invest in you,” Sununu has said. It a clear idea for growing a young workforce, much in need as the state ages.

Van Ostern would tie increased state aid to schools to the graduation rate in the same high demand jobs. We prefer direct aid to students. We also want a promise from both candidates that their proposals will amount to more than campaign speak.

Consider also whether commuter rail from Boston to Nashua and Manchester will create more than 5,600 new jobs, spur development and lure new young workers, as Van Ostern contends. Or, as Sununu puts it, is the train a boondoggle and its purported benefits a “fantasy”? Is the train the future, or should we fix our roads and bridges first?

And wouldn’t our state be more inviting, especially to young workers, if we increased our minimum wage – now tied to the federal rate of $7.25. Van Ostern says he’d start at $12 and negotiate a middle ground with the Legislature. Sununu says an increase is a “job killer.” How about the gradual approach that other states have taken?

Meanwhile, time marches on. We need to plan for change. That’s the new governor’s job.

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