By Gintautas Dumcius

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

CHICOPEE -- Taxes, welfare fraud, and the Department of Children and Families. Those were some of the topics tackled in a televised debate between the Democrats looking to succeed Gov. Deval Patrick.

Attorney General Martha Coakley, Treasurer Steve Grossman and former Obama administration health care official Don Berwick are competing to be the Democratic nominee, with the primary set for Sept. 9. The winner in November will face off against Charlie Baker or Mark Fisher - two Republicans competing in their own primary - and three candidates running independently of the two major parties.

The Wednesday night debate inside WWLP's Chicopee studio led off with a question from a viewer in Holyoke, who asked about lowering property taxes and whether the candidates would take a no-new-taxes pledge.

Grossman said he won't take "revenue off the table." "But if we decide to raise revenue, what I promise the people of Massachusetts that I'll do is to make sure the tax code is far fairer than it's been in the past," he said, adding that he'll "hold harmless low and middle income families, using exemptions, the property tax circuit breaker and the earned income tax credit."

Berwick said health care takes up 42 percent of the state budget, "at least 30 percent of it is waste, half that waste is paperwork" and that is one of his reasons for supporting a single payer system.


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Berwick said he would also seek to close tax loopholes.

"At the moment, I am not interested in looking at real estate taxes, but as I come in as governor, I'm going to look at the revenues we have, I'm going to look at priorities like education and make sure our cities and towns have what they need, and we'll have to review that as we move forward," Coakley said.

Asked how they would address welfare fraud, Coakley pointed to her office prosecuting convenience stores for electronic benefit transfer (EBT) fraud while Grossman said he oversaw the procurement of new technology that helps discover if lottery agents are trading illegally on EBT cards. "We can now figure that out . . . rein that in and go after those people and prosecute them if need be," he said.

Berwick said when he oversaw Medicaid and Medicare, efforts to stop fraud and abuse added billions back to the federal treasury. "But if you want to see fraud, influence that shouldn't be there, look bigger. Look at the influence of lobbyists in our state now," he said.

The hour-long debate offered little opportunity for back and forth exchanges between the candidates.

New England Public Radio's Susan Kaplan asked Berwick about his low poll numbers, pressed Grossman on why he hasn't been able to close the gap with the frontrunner Coakley, and questioned Coakley on criticism from Maura Healey, a former prosecutor who worked for Coakley, on Coakley's civil settlement with a lobby firm in a contingency fee case.

"I'm the only one who hasn't lost a statewide election," Berwick, a first-time candidate, quipped, adding he has a "remarkable field force" and the three candidates are participating in debates "to make the case to a public that hasn't been paying attention until now."

Coakley again defended the settlement with the Brennan Group, which has drawn fire from Grossman and Healey, who is running for attorney general. Grossman and Healey say Coakley should have gone farther.

"That case is one of several hundred that have come across my desk in the last eight years," Coakley said. "We make calls as we see it, I stand by that decision."

Grossman, a former businessman who ran a family company, said his polling numbers "are increasing dramatically." "I'm the only person in this Democratic field who is a proven jobs creator in the private sector and that's what we need," he said.

All three candidates criticized the Patrick administration, but in an oblique manner, when the Department of Children and Families came up. The agency has faced steady criticism since 5-year-old Jeremiah Oliver disappeared and was later found dead. 

Coakley said DCF should have a particular division within the department "whose only responsibility is safety of the children," and said it can be set up within the department's existing budget.

Both Coakley and Grossman said social workers should have lower caseloads.

"We've got many changes we need to make, we need to bring more resources back in, better train social workers, better oversight, better managers," Grossman said.

Berwick said the department needs "better data systems." "We need much better cooperation among state agencies," he said. "It's a management failure when agencies that should cooperate, as in the case of the tragedy of Jeremiah Oliver, do not cooperate."

The rise in homelessness was another topic.

"Homelessness is a plague in our commonwealth, it's gotten worse, not better," Berwick said, adding that there are 19,000 Bay State people who are considered chronically homeless.

He pledged to fund 20,000 housing vouchers as governor.

Coakley agreed, saying the state housing homeless families in hotels is "not a good idea, not cost-effective." More vouchers are needed "in the short run," she said.

Grossman called for more affordable housing and said the state has "not stepped in adequately" to fill the gap after the federal government cut its voucher program.

The candidates were asked about undocumented immigrants. Coakley said she supports the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and in-state tuition for children of undocumented immigrants.

She opposed driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in the past "but we have to face the issue," she said, and she would appoint director of immigrant and community safety to deal with the issue.

"But Martha, you haven't supported driver's licenses for all immigrants and the fact is we don't want anybody driving on our streets or our roads without a driver's education, without a test, without a driver's license, without insurance," Grossman, who backs driver's licenses for all immigrants, responded. "That's bad for all of us. It's a public safety issue. The best you've been able to say, Martha, is you support potential access to driver's licenses."

Berwick also backed driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants and in-state tuition. "But what we really need here is a new direction of leadership," he said. "Stop reading the polls, stop looking at the winds of public opinion. Instead, take a stand, take a stand in favor of human rights, and that's going to take new kind of leadership in this commonwealth and that's what I want to bring here."

Asked about the state's opioid overdose crisis, Grossman said he would halt all new prison construction in his first month as governor, save a billion dollars and funnel money towards detox beds and recovery units instead.

Berwick said he would seek a 50 percent reduction in substance abuse and suicide over first five years. "I must say, why, if you care about an epidemic of substance abuse, would you possibly stand up for the addition of casinos to our commonwealth, which will definitely increase gambling addiction," he added.

Coakley said she recently met with about 15 mothers of addicts in Somerville and Medford and called the experience "heart-wrenching" and called for resources for rehabilitation.

The candidates were also asked if they support the creation of a high-speed commuter rail from Springfield to Boston. Grossman said he did, saying it will create jobs, while Berwick pointed to regional transit authorities shutting down before some people's shifts end as problematic.

"I do believe that we have not had regional equity in the investments we've made in infrastructure, which is why one of the proposals I unfolded today was to provide for within 13 different regional economic areas half a billion dollars over the next ten years, much of which would go towards improving that infrastructure," Coakley said.