Building affordable housing on public land, funding programs with savings realized by instituting single-payer health care, potential repercussions of a casino referendum, and hiring only the most qualified candidates for state jobs were among the ideas bandied about as the five Democratic candidates for Massachusetts governor debated at Suffolk University’s downtown television studio.

The debate, sponsored with the Boston Herald, featured questions from students, the public and moderators Rachelle Cohen, editor of the Boston Herald Editorial Page, and Suffolk University Vice President of Government Relations and Community Affairs John Nucci.

Patronage

Referring to the Probation Department patronage case now being tried in federal court, Steve Grossman said that, as Massachusetts treasurer, he revamped hiring standards and has a track record proving that “every person we hire in the treasurer’s office … will be the best person for that job.” As governor, he would maintain those practices, he said.

Health care costs

Donald Berwick, former chief of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, returned repeatedly to the idea that single-payer health care could return funding to programs that have been cut over the years due to the escalating cost of ensuring state employees.

“Health care has got to become more affordable,” he said as he responded to Suffolk student Joseph Presti’s question about how the candidates would make repayment of student loans more affordable. Chided by Cohen, who suggested he was changing the subject, Berwick said: “Where does the funding come from for a 59 percent increase in health care costs?” and noted that areas from parks and recreation to education feel the pinch, and “that’s why health care is pertinent.”

Casino repeal

In discussing a citizen initiative to repeal the casino law, Attorney General Martha Coakley said the referendum question is illegal and that “if repeal passes, the taxpayers could be forced to repay.” Yet she also said that she “would not have gone to this for revenue.”

“We have a law; we should let it play out,” said businessman and physician Joe Avellone, “What I don't like is referendum government,” he said, drawing a comparison to California, where, since Proposition 13 dramatically cut property-tax rates in 1978, voters have overturned laws, recalled a governor and made their own rules.

Berwick said that he is unequivocally opposed to casinos, arguing that they will result in a mental health burden, lost jobs, and cannibalization of the state lottery.

Affordable housing

In response to student Taylor Cole’s question about how the candidates would make “safe and affordable housing available to college students,” Grossman proposed seeking developers to build mid-priced housing on the “vast amounts of public land” owned by the state, the MBTA and other public entities. In exchange for rock-bottom leases, the developers would pledge to reduce rents, Grossman also called on colleges and universities to provide more campus housing for students.

Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, focused on technology as an answer to a variety of challenges in Massachusetts, arguing that it could be used to prevent fraud in public programs and even to keep children safe.

In a discussion of the Department of Children and Families, Kayyem said that “the caseworker goes to the door and does not have the information that’s out there.” Her solution would be to provide a tablet that DCF employees could use to review reports from schools or police and the case file.