By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
AMHERST – New Hampshire District 2 Congresswoman Annie Kuster and her Republican challenger, Robert Burns, traded views on the role of the federal government in the support of business at a forum Tuesday at LaBelle Winery.
Sponsored by the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce, it was moderated by Brian Law and the issues discussed included inflation, workforce housing, expanded rail transit, and immigration policy, among others.
The two noted they have starkly different views on federal support for Ukraine, abortion rights, and approaches to climate change.
Burns is a native of Nashua and was raised in Bedford and is a local business owner who served as Hillsborough county treasurer, winning the election in 2010 over Chris Pappas, who is now the incumbent Congressman for District 1.
Burns runs a manufacturing consulting business with a primary focus on pharmaceuticals and is a proponent of industry deregulation.
A graduate of Keene State College, he is a supporter of former President Donald Trump and served as a national youth coalition chair for his 2016 campaign through the primary and general elections.
Kuster is seeking her sixth term in office. Also a native of New Hampshire, she is a graduate of Dartmouth College, earned her law degree at Georgetown University, and has been an adoption attorney and lobbyist in Concord.
She serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee which has been focused on affordable healthcare, reducing the cost of prescription drugs, and combatting climate change.
She is also known as an ardent supporter of women’s healthcare rights and reproductive choice.
The two candidates shook hands as she entered the winery to a room of about 100 members of the chamber and the format for the forum had Burns sitting in a holding room while Kuster went first, with a two-minute opening statement.
They took the same questions from panelists and then the audience and made closing statements.
Burns followed Kuster, who left for another event.
He claimed after she left that the two are not too far off from each other on the issue of abortion rights, claiming Kuster supports a ban after 24 weeks and cited her statements to WMUR last week.
Former state Senator Melanie Lesvesque, a Democrat who is running for the 12th District, was listening and she spoke up. She stated that Burns was misstating Kuster on that record.
After the event, her director of communications, Anne Lentz, clarified Kuster’s position: “The answer to your question is yes. Annie Kuster believes that women should be able to access abortion care after 24 weeks in cases of rape, incest, health of the mother, and fatal fetal anomaly.”
Kuster began the business forum by discussing the difficulties of the past year from the pandemic, to the insurrection at the Capitol, to the war in Ukraine and for many in the business world, staffing issues, supply chain troubles, and more.
“But we are resilient,” Kuster said in her opening remarks. And she touted with pride the efforts that she and the delegation were able to provide in federal relief during the worst of the COVID-19 crisis.
Burns said one of the reasons he got into the race is to address supply chain issues for manufacturing, particularly for pharmaceuticals as outsourcing issues and quality health care products.
“I’m a business guy and I am here to work for the people of New Hampshire,” he said charging his opponent is getting money from the big business world and special interest groups.
Burns said he would like to push for more preventive healthcare, particularly for screening for men’s health, and said he would like to see a single-payer healthcare system.
As for D.C. and how it does business with lobbyists, “I want to blow up that system and free up small businesses” who worry about healthcare costs and other issues.
The two were asked separately what could the federal government do to reduce inflation.
Burns said the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act is “a boondoggle” which creates more spending and will lead to more inflation.
“I learned this as a kid on a cartoon,” he said where government magically prints more money.
“We have way too many people who want to work but are limited by the federal government,” Burns said in how much work they can do without impacting their benefits.
Kuster said in March 2020 the nation was heading into a total economic collapse with a highly contagious pandemic on its way in.
She said she was very proud of actions taken including the creation of the American Rescue Plan Act, help to businesses with the Paycheck Protection Program, and community loans to keep institutions open and the economy growing.
She said inflation goes back to dealing with Trump’s $2 trillion tax plan and all the spending required to help rescue the nation but The Inflation Reduction Act will help.
Bringing manufacturing back with measures to produce semiconductors here through the CHIPS Act and addressing infrastructure and improvement with the nation’s ports are now being tackled.
She noted a recent visit to a microelectronics manufacturer in Hudson as an example.
Asked about federal incentivizing for workforce housing, Burns said there was no need for a federal role and that there is actually plenty of housing already. Communities, he said, need to get together and make sure those houses have heat in them all the time.
Printing money and giving it to developers, he said, only drives up the prices. “It’s proven. It’s simple economics. This needs to be taken from a more community basis,” he said.
Kuster said workforce housing is the number one issue she hears as she travels the state.
She noted the vacancy rate in the state for a two-bedroom apartment is now at .5 percent when 5 percent would be closer to healthy.
“We need 20,000 units,” she said. Kuster said she was very proud of the work Congress has done to incentivize private businesses to build more affordable housing.
She noted there are signs that there are improvements noting Nashua has another 400 units coming and Salem as well.
“This is a big difference from my opponent. He believes that federal intervention is not necessary. I think most would tell you they (businesses) need incentives to build affordable housing,” Kuster said.
LACK OF WORKFORCE
Burns said he thinks the federal government does have some role in this and accused Kuster of taking money from opioid producers.
He said there needs to be more effort to put back to work those with disabilities.
“We talk about a mental health crisis because we have too many idle people,” he said. “We need to get people working…giving more free money is not going to help.”
Kuster said the good news in the state is that “we have fantastic jobs” but the bad news is the cost of housing and other barriers including childcare which makes those jobs inaccessible.
She noted only about half of the women in the workforce have come back since the height of the pandemic and one issue is the lack of affordability and capacity of childcare centers.
But she noted there are some federal examples to help the solution, mentioning Midstate Health Center in Plymouth which has an employee child care center that received grant aid from several programs, including the Northern Borders program.
With New Hampshire paying energy prices 60 percent higher than in other states, the candidates were asked what they would do to bring down costs.
Burns said he believes the future of energy is in batteries.
“But we are not there yet,” he said. “We need more investment in nuclear power,” he said.
Kuster said one of the biggest parts of the inflation reduction act is the largest investment in renewable and clean energy and efficiency efforts.
She noted a firm in Milford, Contemporary Auto, is putting in a solar array that will allow them to make their own electricity and sell it back to the grid.
“New Hampshire has fallen woefully behind because the governor and legislature have refused to allow us to invest,” in renewables, Kuster said, and we would not be so dependent on fossil fuel if they had agreed to Democratic-backed efforts.
She said New Hampshire consumers are going to spend $750 a year more than their Rhode Island counterparts because of this delay in the implementation of a clean energy strategy.
“We could be doing much, much better,” she said. The state could retrofit some of its dams to generate power.
Kuster urged companies to look into funding to help retrofit their buildings through the new act.
Asked about their views on funding expanded rail transit, Burns said the future is electric buses and not trains.
“Rail has been a boondoggle,” he said and a costly public investment.
“It doesn’t save me any time….it doesn’t leave when you want it to…I love the trains but I also realize they are heavily subsidized and there is a better future coming,” he said.
Kuster said she is a strong supporter of expanded rail and noted that is a difference between her and her opponent.
“I’m a big fan,” she said of a proposal to link Nashua with rail transit in Massachusetts, noting it would improve the lives of workers, increase job growth and add to the quality of life.
It would also alleviate traffic.
Burns said the nation needs to secure its borders better and give workers here jobs first.
He said the border crisis in the south subjects people on the way here to violence and abuse.
“It’s inhumane,” he said.
Kuster said with Canada she pushed for reopening the border, and that was not a Biden administration priority.
She said she worked to improve trade back and forth with Canada and will continue to do so if re-elected.
In terms of the southern border “we need to do much better,” she said.
Kuster said she supported paths to legal immigration and noted one area of focus for her would be on workforce J1 visas to help increase the workforce in rural hospitals.
CLIMATE AND ABORTION
Audience questions included one about their view on climate change and abortion.
Kuster said she is a big believer that recent weather events are a result of carbon pollution and by addressing those concerns the nation can create new jobs in the process.
From geothermal to wind to solar and offshore wind the state can make itself energy-independent.
On abortion, “I am vehemently pro-choice. My opponent supports a national ban on abortion,” and Kuster noted if Republicans take the House majority in January, the bill he supports to limit abortion in its early stage would be voted on with no exceptions.
She said Burns “talks about an abortion death panel” essentially created to determine whether the abortion could go forward only to save the life of the mother.
In Texas right now, Kuster said women are being sent home with a miscarriage.
“I think that is barbaric,” Kuster said.
Burns said he does a lot of fishing and said manmade pollution is killing reefs, in his opinion.
“My stance on abortion is close to Kuster. I am pro-life,” he said, saying he would support a federal limit at 12 weeks of gestation.
“It’s up to the states now,” Burns said, citing the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade “so maybe it’s a moot point.”
Burns said he only supports humanitarian aid for Ukraine but not weapons and cash.
Kuster, noting she was wearing a flag of Ukraine on her lapel said, “I will stand by the people of Ukraine,” and she said she supports giving them material support to fight Russia, including drones.
“I think that is what they need. They are learning to shoot those drones down,” she said.
TRUST IN THE ELECTION SYSTEM
Burns said election systems should be left to the states. He noted there are problems with voting systems and because some elections in New Hampshire are won and lost by just a few votes, he wants there to be ways for voters to have confidence that their votes are being accurately counted.
Kuster said she was concerned there are people trying to undermine confidence in elections and that New Hampshire has a strong and safe system and there are a lot of volunteers.
She said she is both “shocked and disappointed” by the number of candidates this cycle who have undermined confidence, based on the elections of 2020, where many Trump supporters have contended, inaccurately, that the election was stolen by Biden.
“Future elections will be successful if we support them, not undermine them,” and harass poll workers, she said.
Kuster said she is lowering prescription costs, which is one of the biggest things that Congress has accomplished and that her opponent has spent his entire career working for Big Pharma.
The new legislation has capped out-of-pocket and insulin costs and all vaccines for seniors will be free.
“This is the first step,” she said.
Issues with inflation can go back to price gouging of big oil and others but with the release of the strategic oil reserves and calling out companies for gouging, the price of a gallon of gas has come down from $5 to what is now about $3.50.
Burns said so many small companies cannot afford to offer health insurance and that if he goes to Washington he would work on the single most important issue which is getting health care more affordable.
The election is Tuesday, Nov. 8.