Van Ostern touts commuter rail as economic boost in Democratic governor’s race

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern attends a “Monitor” interview. MADDIE VANDERPOOL / Monitor staff

  • Colin Van Ostern at the Concord Monitor editorial meeting. MADDIE VANDERPOOL—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/18/2016 11:55:01 PM

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern sees New Hampshire’s future aligned with rail.

“It’s not a complete coincidence that the fastest growing city in the state – Dover – and other cities that are growing economically are on rail,” Van Ostern said at a Thursday morning Monitor editorial board meeting.

The second-term executive councilor from Concord said his own experience in the private sector has informed this belief.

A senior adviser at Southern New Hampshire University’s College For America program and a former business manager at Stonyfield Yogurt, Van Ostern said he’s had many conversations with potential hires about moving to the Granite State. Some of those people were concerned about finding an affordable house or good job for their spouse.

“You can’t replace the feeling of losing a great new hire because she’s worried her husband won’t get a good job,” he said.

Van Ostern and other Democratic candidates in the race for governor have been pushing for a regional rail line connecting Manchester and Nashua to Boston. An economic feasibility study the state recently conducted estimated a rail line would help create 5,600 new jobs and deliver more economic benefits.

But rail has also had its detractors for years, who say the millions of dollars that would be put into the project could instead be spent on the state’s aging infrastructure.

Van Ostern said he believes connecting New Hampshire to Boston will be an economic boon in many ways, attracting workers and young families to the Granite State, a place he described as having “great schools, high quality of life, low taxes (and a) beautiful environment.”

“That’s the way New Hampshire has succeeded,” Van Ostern added.

Expanding educational opportunity also factors heavily into Van Ostern’s economic plan for the state. A father of two small boys, Van Ostern favors the state funding full-day kindergarten programs, tweaking the state’s adequacy aid formula and stabilization grants, and reinstating building aid to get more money to schools.

Like rail, Van Ostern said he’s motivated to do this in part to attract new families to New Hampshire.

He added that he’s seen new hires at his companies get discouraged from moving to a city like Manchester and instead going to wealthier communities like Exeter and Bedford because of the quality of schools.

“That creates a self-perpetuating problem where you have less higher-income families moving into a community that can provide the tax base that helps support good schools,” Van Ostern said, adding, “this has frustrated me time and time again.”

He estimates full-day kindergarten would cost the state between $13 million and $14 million per year, and he would pay for the program by raising the state’s cigarette tax.

Looking at the cost of college in New Hampshire, Van Ostern said the state should strengthen its pathway between community colleges and public universities and try to freeze tuition.

“We have to do more than we have, and it’s a great way to strengthen our workforce,” he said.

As far as bringing additional revenue into the state, Van Ostern said he’s committed to not supporting a broad-based sales or income tax.

He instead pointed to the millions of dollars the federal government invested in New Hampshire when Medicaid expansion passed, calling it a financial boost to the state.

“The most impactful thing we have done as a state in the 15 years I have lived here to drive additional revenue into our state is expanding Medicaid,” Van Ostern said. “It did not raise state taxes. We have brought $608 million of the federal taxes we had already sent to Washington back to our state in the last two years alone.”

But Van Ostern added that he also believes New Hampshire can look at pragmatic ways to cut spending and balance the budget.

Ending the heroin and opioid epidemic is also part of Van Ostern’s economic plan.

Though the candidate commended punishments for selling fentanyl being put on par with those for selling heroin, he stopped short of suggesting that drug dealers should receive lifetime sentences.

He said he would seek the advice of law enforcement as to what appropriate sentencing should be, but he added that the state should be careful to separate high-level drug dealers from addicts who are selling heroin and fentanyl to support their own habit.

“Ultimately, I think the way we solve this is attacking the problem, not the people with the problem,” Van Ostern said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)

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