State Senate District 19 Candidates Debate the Issues

Regina Birdsell has several caveats before she’ll accept expanded gambling in her state, and one of them is where the money goes. “I want to make sure the local towns have some of the revenue sharing,” she told an audience at the Derry Veterans of Foreign Wars Post on Tuesday, Oct. 14.

Her debate opponent, Kristi St. Laurent, agreed. “I want to see a significant portion of the revenues go to each town in the state,” she said. “This money will be best spent at the local level.”

Birdsell, R-Hampstead and St. Laurent, D-Windham, are candidates for the Dist. 19 State Senate seat, which encompasses Derry, Hampstead and Windham. They debated each other on the issues facing New Hampshire in the first-ever candidates’ debate sponsored by the Derry VFW. Supporters and the curious crammed the VFW Hall on the evening of Oct. 14 to hear the views of two women who want the best for their state, in sometimes different ways.

VFW member Richard Tripp was the originator of the event. “I’ve been watching the ‘attack ads’ on TV and noticed that there was no communication among the candidates,” Tripp said as he set up for the event. “There are so many allegations out there, and people trying to convince the public that a candidate is worse than they are.”

Tripp enlisted community member David Nelson to moderate the debate. Nelson is an experienced master of ceremonies, conducting the annual Derry Community Television debates for town offices.

Tripp said he developed 10 questions and the forum would explore seven of them, to be selected by Nelson at random.

Nelson further explained the ground rules. “The initial speaking order will be determined by a coin toss,” he said. “The seven questions will be drawn by lot. There will be no rebuttals, and each candidate gets three minutes.”

The eighth question, he said, would be one each candidate asked the other. They would also be allowed opening and closing remarks of three minutes each.

St. Laurent won the coin toss but let Birdsell go first.

In her opening remarks, Birdsell spoke to her three terms as a State Representative. She is a recruiter in the high-tech industry, a Coast Guard veteran, married to Mark Skelly and the stepmother of two young adults, she said.

Birdsell referenced a family history of “honor, service and duty.” Her father is a World War II veteran and her sister a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. “It was instilled in me,” she said, “and that is one reason I’m running.”

Her second reason, Birdsell said, is to bring her fiscal conservatism to the Senate. “I never voted for a sales tax, gas tax or Medicaid expansion, and I voted twice for a balanced budget,” she said.

As she goes door-to-door in Derry, Hampstead and Windham, she has found that the economy is the biggest concern of her potential constituents, she said.

St. Laurent said she and her husband, Robert, have lived in Windham 15 years. She is a former Derry resident and a graduate of Pinkerton Academy, she said.

But St. Laurent has lived all over the country, attending five different high schools before finishing at Pinkerton. “It was a great experience, but I also envied those with a sense of home,” she said. Her children have those roots in Windham, she said, and she wants to make New Hampshire the best it can be.

Nelson chose the questions from numbered Ping-Pong balls in a container. The first went to Birdsell and was about SB 217, which would have prohibited employees being required to join a union.

“I am on the record as being in favor of Right-To-Work,” Birdsell said. “People should be allowed to vote if they want to be in a union. It’s one more tool in our ‘economic toolbox.’”

St. Laurent said she opposes Right-To-Work. “I followed the debate and I did not hear any outcry of workers in favor of it,” she said.

St. Laurent went first on the second question, based on RSA 155, which would allow smoking in civic, religious and fraternal organizations when they are not open to the public. “If it’s a private club and it’s not open to the public it is their house,” St. Laurent said. “You don’t tell people what to do in their home.”

Birdsell agreed. “It’s not the state’s responsibility to tell you what to do in your home,” she said.

The third question dealt with rate increases for public utilities and bringing more energy to the state. Birdsell said, “In the past I have not supported Northern Pass. But we need to look at all options, put all options on the table.”

St. Laurent referred to the two options currently in the works, Northern Pass and the gas pipeline. Her concern with Northern Pass is the “damming and destroying” of wildlife habitats and environments. “We need to look at where our energy comes from and what’s best for New Hampshire,” she said.

The Northern Pass is “not undo-able,” St. Laurent added, but she would prefer that the power lines be buried.

St. Laurent said she serves on the Planning Board in Windham and that “when you cut down a tree, the neighbors are upset.” She added, “But I agree with Regina that we have to get more energy choices. If not, it will hold back economic development.”

Question four, on decriminalizing one ounce or less of marijuana, was based on HB 325, which died in the Senate, and went first to St. Laurent. St. Laurent pointed out that there were two sides to the question. “One is decriminalizing a small quantity of marijuana, the other is legalizing it,” she said. “Several states have already made their choice, and we need to look at what’s happening in those states today.”

Birdsell was in favor of decriminalizing small quantities of the drug. “Our police officers are wasting their time and energy dealing with this,” she pointed out. Possession of a small amount could damage a person’s chance at a career or college, she added.

Birdsell said she is willing to decriminalize the small amount of marijuana but not to legalize the drug. “There are a lot of issues,” she said.

The candidates differed on Question 5, raising the minimum wage. The question was based on HB 1403, which would have raised the minimum wage in New Hampshire to $9 an hour but failed in the Senate. Birdsell said she voted against the bill as a House member. “If it’s linked to the Consumer Price Index, the public would never have a say,” she told the audience.

“I am inclined to support it,” St. Laurent said. “It would move people up to what we consider a living wage.” St. Laurent said raising the minimum wage could help the “working poor” from having to ask for government assistance, and thus benefit the taxpayer.

Question 6, regarding SB 152, which would have permitted video lottery and table games at a single specified location, went first to St. Laurent. The bill died in the House.

St. Laurent said her concern was on all the hopes that had been “pinned to its passage.” “It is not our saving grace and it is not going to solve all our problems,” she warned. While she doesn’t completely oppose a casino, she said she wanted to see safeguards built in, such as “adequate and perpetual counseling for alcohol, drug and gaming addiction” and wanted to make sure it was confined to one destination facility.

Birdsell said she supports bringing in a casino but it was an unstable source of revenue. Birdsell’s solution is to move the proceeds into specific projects, such as roads and red-list bridges, rather than into the general fund. “That way, if revenues drop, we won’t have to worry that it would impact programs,” she said. “We won’t have to worry, for example, about DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) facing a shortfall.”

The women had different takes on a question on balancing the budget. St. Laurent said the state has a “pretty good” tax structure and is learning to budget within its limits. Budget cuts are not always the answer, she said. “You need to look at the impact down the road.” She’s willing to pay the gas tax, she said, noting that it hasn’t been raised in 22 years. “It’s not a problem to me when I see the expansion of Route 93 can be funded,” she said.

Birdsell was not in favor of increasing revenue through taxes. “We need to look at what’s being spent,” she said, noting that the state budget is currently $80 million overspent. “There is no transparency with either the Governor or the Executive Council,” she said.

Nelson had warned the audience against “hooting or heckling” the candidates, and the audience followed his request. The candidates were also civil, sticking close to the issues, eschewing personal attacks and agreeing on some points.

After the debate the candidates mingled with the audience, answering questions one-on-one. The Democratic and Republican Town Committees set up literature tables in the rear of the hall.

The next event will be a Town Hall-style meeting Oct. 28 at the VFW Hall and will feature Robin McLane, Democratic candidate for Executive Council, and Joe Plaia, Democratic candidate for County Attorney.