GREAT BARRINGTON -- In a fiercely combative public debate, 4th Berkshire District state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Green-Rainbow Party candidate Scott Laugenour tangled on state income tax rates, a binding ballot question on legalizing medical marijuana, a potential proposal to tax nonprofits, and leadership issues.
The one-hour debate was attended by about 50 citizens at Monument Mountain Regional High School on Monday night.
"The fire in the belly is strong, the passion for this job is as great as it ever was," said Pignatelli, 53, seeking his sixth two-year term in Boston. The 4th Berkshire District, under redistricting, expands to 20 towns in Berkshire and Hampden Counties as of the new year. The House district will be the largest geographically in the state, stretching from Richmond to Russell.
"I'm proud of the tough votes I've taken, and I can defend, if I even need to be defending, every vote," declared Pignatelli.
Laugenour, 55, is re-challenging Pignatelli, who took 83 percent of the ballots in their 2010 matchup. He emphasized his policy of accepting every public discussion opportunity offered and criticized his opponent for setting a limit on the number of debates. There are two more coming up.
Outlining his 25-year management career with Marriott Resorts, Laugenour explained that his goal is to "challenge lobbyists' power and expose corporate influence on legislation" and he stressed openness, transparency and "an innovative approach to democracy" based on his independence from major political parties.
Calling for upending the state's "regressive tax policy," Laugenour proposed eliminating state income taxes on the first $46,000 of income, while raising the rate to 8.3 percent above that threshold. The current Massachusetts income tax rate is 5.3 percent of gross income. According to Laugenour, his plan would produce $1.5 billion in new revenue for the state.
But Pignatelli countered that Laugenour's progressive tax proposal would require changing the state's constitution, which currently requires a flat tax on all personal income. Attempts to amend the constitution for a progressive rate failed in 1976 and 1994, according to the independent Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center.
Laugenour denied that a constitutional amendment would be needed for his income tax proposal, which he claimed would result in lower taxes for income below $90,000.
As an alternative, Pignatelli proposed a review of how state tax dollars are spent, citing a $54 million credit to Evergreen Solar Inc., the clean energy company in Devens that declared bankruptcy six months later, closed its factory, cut 800 jobs and shifted production to China. "That's a waste of $54 million," Pignatelli stated. He described Laugenour's tax plan "as the wrong policy at this stage of the game. Let's not raise taxes and put an additional burden on people's pocketbooks."
Outlining the battle to win a fair share of state aid for regional school districts such as Berkshire Hills, Pignatelli said, "I don't think my opponent has any idea of what happens in the state Legislature on the priorities we have. We've got to fight the fights we can win, we've got to be willing to compromise on the ones we can't, but it's all about the [4th Berkshire] district first."
Pignatelli blasted a proposal endorsed by his opponent to tax nonprofits such as Tanglewood, which pays in lieu of taxes and injects $63 million into the county's economy annually during its summer season, and organizations such as the Railroad Street Youth Program in Great Barrington, which deals with at-risk young people. "We need to be very careful, we'd be putting them out of business," Pignatelli said.
Laugenour called the incumbent's statement "a gross mischaracterization," explaining that he signed a petition circulated by Mount Washington resident Gail Garrett calling for an examination of nonprofits based on a definition of charity "that predominantly helps the poor. The nonprofit sector has morphed into something quite large. There were no proposals there, it was an opportunity to begin discussions."
Asked about support for statewide ballot question 3, which would legalize marijuana for medical purposes as of Jan. 1 if approved, Laugenour voiced his support in a brief statement, while Pignatelli expressed in detail "very serious reservations" about the language of the proposal, which he termed "very open-ended and very loose, there's not even an age restriction."
He called marijuana a "gateway, not for everybody but for some people" to more serious drugs such as heroin. According to Pignatelli, "there's no medical proof that marijuana actually has any healing agents, it may provide some comfort." He predicted the binding referendum would pass on Nov. 6, "but then the Legislature is going to have to fix it."
Laugenour accused Pignatelli of "double-dipping" by "claiming travel deductions on federal tax returns that are already reimbursed by state taxpayers." Pignatelli told The Eagle on Tuesday that the federal tax code allows state lawmakers who must travel more than 50 miles from their districts to claim the deductions, which he compared to deducting interest on home mortgages.
Questions were prepared and presented by student moderators Bridget Monti and Kevin Marzotto, with followups by Meghan St. John, an English and journalism teacher at Monument High and adviser to the student newspaper, the Maroon Tribune. William Fields, a retired social studies teacher, served as emcee. Written queries submitted by audience members were included. Earlier, the candidates discussed the issues in a high school civics class and at a session with reporters, covering many of the same topics.
The candidates debate again at the Lenox Library on Wednesday, Oct. 31, at 7:30 p.m.
To reach Clarence Fanto:
or (413) 496-6247.
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto.