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Claremont House Races Draw Eight Candidates

  • John Cloutier

  • France Gauthier

  • Gary Merchant

  • John O'Connor

  • Claremont City Councilor Andrew O'Hearne at a meeting in Claremont, N.H., on May 9, 2018. O'Hearne represents Ward I. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chad Rolston

  • Walt Stapleton



Valley News Correspondent
Monday, October 22, 2018

Claremont — With discussions growing across New Hampshire about a possible new lawsuit over education funding, House candidates from Claremont all agree that the state needs to increase its aid to property-poor towns.

But there are differences among candidates on where the money should come from.

There are four House seats representing Claremont, one for each of the three wards and a fourth, Sullivan 10, representing the entire city.

Sullivan 10

State Rep. John Cloutier, first elected in the early 1990s, makes no bones about his desire to see the state look closer at a broad-based tax that would increase school aid and at the same time reduce local school property taxes. Currently, Claremont has the highest tax rate in the state when combining school, city and county rates.

“I think we need more revenue and we have got to stop putting it on the property tax,” Cloutier, a Democrat, said. “It is just more downshifting to communities like Claremont.

“I really think we need to talk about a broad-based tax and I am not afraid to say that. But it should go back to reducing the property tax.”

Cloutier also said he believes school administrative costs have increased unnecessarily with the breaking up of school districts into smaller SAUs.

“We have gone from 11 SAUs in Sullivan County to 15,” he said. “I think something is wrong. Forty years ago there were 60 SAUs in the state; now there are 100. It is something we ought to take a look at.”

One possible new revenue stream that Cloutier and others candidates from Claremont want to consider is from legalization of marijuana. In the last legislative session, Cloutier supported decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana but is reserving a decision on a more liberal law, including recreational use, until a legislative study commission issues an upcoming report.

“I do worry (if it is legal) about someone getting in an accident because they are impaired,” he said. But should the state approve legalization, Cloutier wants to be sure it is done in a way that maximizes revenue for the state.

He also backs the state establishing its own minimum wage instead of using the federal figure of $7.25 an hour.

“I support an increase and think we should do it over time to get to $15 an hour,” Cloutier said, adding that the cost of food, housing, property taxes and other living expenses demand a higher wage for low-income earners.

Cloutier also said he opposed the bill in 2017 to remove the requirement to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon and is also opposed to arming teachers in schools.

“It has worked for many years without problem and should not have been changed,” he said about the repeal of the concealed carry permit.

Repeated calls to the cell phone of Cloutier’s opponent, Republican Conlin Smith, went unanswered.

Sullivan 3

First-term state Rep. Francis Gauthier, R-Claremont, is running against former lawmaker and current City Councilor Andrew O’Hearne for the House seat representing the city’s Ward 1, which includes much of the downtown.

Gauthier, 61, is retired. He strongly supports freezing the annual decrease in the stabilization grant that provides adequacy aid to local school districts and in fact wants to increase it. The annual 4 percent reduction has cost Claremont hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

“I’m all in if we are going to increase the stabilization grant,” Gauthier said. “I co-sponsored legislation to wipe out that decrease and increase the grant.”

He said Democrats blocked it. He also supported decriminalization of marijuana.

“It is a good thing because if someone got caught with a little bit of pot it could ruin their lives,” Gauthier said.

As for a full legalization, Gauthier first wants to see the proposed legislation before deciding how he would vote.

“The big thing is we have to collect taxes,” he said.

Regarding whether New Hampshire should adopt its own minimum wage, Gauthier said there is no need to, noting that most businesses are paying starting wage well above $7.25

“It is going up all by itself because of the economy and businesses have to pay more,” Gauthier said. “Wages are going up because we have a free market economy. With a good economy and a shortage of labor, wages have to go up.”

Gauthier backed the repeal of a permit for a concealed weapon and sees it as better deterrent to mass shootings than “no gun zone.”

“They won’t shoot the place up if they don’t know who has a weapon,” Gauthier said. “We won’t have an active shooter at the Statehouse (where concealed carry is legal) because they wouldn’t make it in, or out.”

Messages left for O’Hearne were not returned.

Sullivan 4

Gary Merchant, a retired pharmacist who won a contested Democratic primary last month, will face state Rep. John O’Connor, a Republican who is seeking his second term for the seat representing Ward 2.

“I recognize we have a problem of inadequate funding from the state,” said Merchant, 65, who was born and raised in Claremont. “There needs to be a state solution for a state issue, not a local solution because it is not a local issue.”

Merchant said the $3,500 per student the state provides in base aid does not come close to educating a child and he would like to see that figure rise to about $15,000.

“I’m asking for more equity in how we fund education. As to how we get there, that is up for discussion.”

Merchant, who is the president of the New Hampshire Board of Pharmacy, said he decided to make his first run for public office from his hometown because of what it provided for him.

“I’ve been blessed by this community. It provided me with a sound education and I want to give the same opportunity to the children that I had in my life.”

O’Connor, a retired New York City police officer, said if voters send him back to Concord, he will fight for more education dollars for Claremont.

“Study commissions have been working really hard and there are no easy answers,” O’Connor said about education funding. “It revolves around finding a new form of tax revenue.”

That money could come from legalizing marijuana for recreational use, he said.

“It is imperative we legalize it and tax it. We need a new form of revenue,” said O’Connor who also thinks sports betting may be way to raise more money.

“Bottom line is we can’t come up with more money by taxing and re-taxing the same things all the time.”

O’Connor calls himself an “independent Republican” who does not always toe the party line. He opposed his party’s support for repeal of the concealed carry permit, passed in 2017.

“It is not about the Second Amendment,” he said, noting that even as retired police office he had to go through a rigorous process in New York for a permit. “There has to be some sort of regulation. You should have to go through a process.”

Merchant backs medical marijuana but would need to see proof that there is a way to test for impairment before supporting recreational use.

“How do we detect impairment? That is where I am held up on it,” Merchant said. “It is a safety issue.”

Merchant also supports a permit for a concealed weapon carry and also wants to tighten background checks and is opposed to teachers being armed.

“I would be inclined to supporting the need for a permit (for a concealed weapon.”)

Both candidates would like to see the state increase the minimum wage above the federal level.

“I think we have to have a livable wage. When we have a low minimum wage, the state then has to subsidize workers (with assistance),” Merchant said. “I am open to how much (of an increase) and over how much time.”

O’Connor said raising the wage to $15 an hour, which is what some states and large cities are doing, would make it not a minimum wage but a “standard” wage and that could cost jobs for employers who can’t afford it.

On the other hand, O’Connor said minimum wage earners used to be those getting their first job but today, it is being paid to people trying to make a living and support a family.

“I think we need to have an increase and find a standard wage. I don’t know how people do it at $7.25 an hour,” O’Connor said.

Sullivan 5

The seat representing Ward 3 is open as longtime state Rep. Ray Gagnon, a Democrat, opted not to run again. He is instead running for register of probate in Sullivan County.

In 2016, Republican Walt Stapleton was defeated in a bid for the Sullivan 10 House seat and this year he has set his sights on the Sullivan 5 seat. His opponent, Democrat Chad Rolston, is making his first run for public office.

Rolston, 43, is the vice president of information systems for a Michigan-based credit union. He moved to New England in 2003 and has lived in Claremont for seven years.

“Definitely there is a revenue and funding problem,” Rolston said about education funding. “I don’t think there is a silver bullet that will solve the problem. I don’t know what the best answer is but I do believe it will take a multi-pronged approach. People are desperate for a solution to this problem.”

Stapleton, 72, is retired from more than 50 years in the railroad industry and last year, closed down his railroad consulting and insurance business so he could devote full time to being a state representative. if elected.

“It has been going on much too long and it is time to get it fixed,” Stapleton said about the education funding issue.

He wants to help create a formula that solves the disproportionate burden of taxes on cities like Claremont.

“We will have property tax relief for places like Claremont and have more money for the schools,” Stapleton said. “Everywhere I go, people harp on taxes being too high.”

As for more revenue, Stapleton will keep an open mind but would consider capital gains taxes on dividends or perhaps additional user fees on state resources.

On marijuana legalization, Rolston has two requirements: “If it is heavily taxed and directly reduces property taxes and if law enforcement is confident it can detect for impairment, I would support it.”

Stapleton supports decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana so as to not further burden law enforcement and the court system with these cases and would back legalization but only if there is in place a solid structure to collect taxes on sales.

Stapleton and Rolston share a similar view on the concealed carry issue for gun owners.

As a gun owner, Stapleton said he is “pro Second Amendment” and has a concealed weapon carry permit.

“I’m in favor of requiring a permit. I kept my permit active because of the reciprocity,” he said, referring to the permit being valid in states that allow conceal carry.

Rolson said New Hampshire had a requirement to obtain a permit for carrying a concealed weapon for nearly 100 years.

“I was opposed to the bill to repeal that requirement, as were many members of law enforcement, and nearly 80 percent of voters polled by Survey USA. I support common sense gun safety measures and was disappointed with this repeal.”

A “livable wage” is a good idea Stapleton said and he would like to see New Hampshire establish its own minimum wage to help low-income wage earners.

“I just feel $7.25 an hour doesn’t cut it,” he said.

Rolston would also like to see the state set its own minimum wage above the federal figure.

“We (New Hampshire) are behind on that topic,” he said. “How much or over what period of time, I am not sure but I think somewhere between $13 and $15, (an hour).”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.