By DAVID BROOKS

Staff Writer

NASHUA – Pleading uncertainty about details, Republican congressional hopeful Marilinda Garcia declined to comment on the idea of extending passenger rail north into Nashua during a candidate forum Thursday, earning something of a rebuke from the usually affable Nashua Chamber of Commerce President Chris Williams.

“As a state representative, you had a lot of involvement in rail issues, so you shouldn’t be completely naive or ignorant about the issue,” Williams said, after Garcia told him “I’d like to learn a little more about it – I’ll get back to you” when he asked her stance on extending passenger rail.

Garcia, a four-term representative from Salem, responded that she wanted to wait for the recommendations of a feasibility study on the costs and benefits of bringing passenger rail up from Lowell, Mass., through Nashua to Manchester. The Nashua chamber supports the extension.

“If it isn’t going to become a taxpayer liability, why not?” Garcia finally said of the project.

The feasibility study is due by the end of the year. In 2011, Garcia was among those state legislators who voted to rescind the New Hampshire Rail Transit Authority, killing a similar study at that time.

In contrast, Democrat U.S. Rep. Ann Kuster told Williams she would push for federal funding to aid the extension if the feasibility study supports it.

Garcia, who represents Salem, said the transportation issue that she has been “most attentive to” is the expansion of Interstate 93, but Williams cut short discussion about that topic, pointing out that most of the expansion was in the state’s other Congressional district.

The pre-breakfast forum in Rivier University’s Dion Hall featured Williams questioning first Kuster for about 20 minutes on a stage in front of roughly 100 chamber members and then questioning Garcia, her Republican challenger for the 2nd Congressional District seat. The candidates did not debate each other.

The chamber will hold a similar forum for the gubernatorial candidates Oct. 22, and for the area’s Executive Council and state Senate candidates Oct. 16.

Working within strict time constraints – the chamber often holds breakfast events partly because the prospect of everybody having to leave for work provides an easily enforced deadline – Williams’ questions focused mostly on the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, and on passenger rail.

His questioning of Kuster was sharpest on the financial burden faced by companies with more than 50 employees once the Obamacare mandate kicks in requiring them to offer health insurance, which should happen next year.

“How much more can the business community shoulder in terms of the additional cost of premium increases that result from all that additional coverage. ... In practicality it’s the business community that is stooping lower and lower from the heavier burden,” William said.

Kuster argued that this cost argument was flawed because it ignored the fact that health care costs have been soaring for years.

“You presumption is that their rates wouldn’t have gone up at all – my presumption is that their rates would have continued to go up by those double-digit increases,” she said. She argued that the structure of Obamacare allows more focus on prevention, more transparency on pricing and costs, and competition between providers, which may affect price increases.

“The cost curve is starting to come down,” she argued.

Garcia was sharply critical of businesses’ costs associated Obamacare, particularly the medical device excise tax, which adds 2.3 percent to the retail price of devices and uses the funds as a major Obamacare funding source. Garcia noted that New Hampshire has about two dozen firms that make medical devices whose sales are affected by the tax, and vowed to support repealing it, if elected.

Garcia said she wanted to “dismantle” Obamacare, including getting rid of the federal health exchange in New Hampshire, so that “a state-based solution can come in and fill the gap.”

Williams pointed out that as a representative Garcia had voted against establishing a state exchange for the Affordable Care Act.

“If you’re saying we should allow state-based solutions to take over, and yet here in New Hampshire we don’t have a state-based solution, how do we reconcile those positions?” Williams asked.

“That was a state-based solution that was somewhat forced on us. ... Do I support the exchanges in general? No,” Garcia responded. “We were working on ways to make insurance affordable, to have purchasing across state lines, to allow greatest consumer choice.

“I reject the underlying premise ... of Obamacare altogether. I’m saying it’s a destructive force,” said Garcia.

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