- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 12, 2016

BEDFORD, N.H. (AP) - New Hampshire political opponents for a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s office described their plans Wednesday to boost the state’s high-tech industry, at a forum focused on women and technology.

In separate appearances, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte and her Democratic challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, each said women deserve equal pay for equal work, and Ayotte stressed her support for merit pay, as well.

The two, along with Democratic Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern and Republican Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, opponents in the governor’s race, took turns addressing the New Hampshire High Tech Council event in Bedford. All four described ways to spur job creation, address the state’s shortage of high-skilled workers and attract new people to the state through education and re-training programs.

Hassan was first up. She said that as a senator, she would focus on cutting red tape for small businesses and making college more affordable. She said she supports tax cuts for middle-class families and investments in clean energy, transportation infrastructure and broadband technology.

When an audience member misspoke and asked her how she would enforce “women being paid more than men” instead of the same, Hassan quipped: “I’m tempted to say if people are paid based on talent, that might in fact be the case.”

She noted that under a 2015 New Hampshire law, employers are required to pay men and women equally for jobs requiring the same skill, effort, and responsibility. She said she also would improve access to capital for female entrepreneurs by increasing transparency in the lending industry and federal funding for groups such as the Center for Women’s Business Advancement at Southern New Hampshire University.

“When half the population isn’t as engaged in starting businesses as the other half, it really pulls us all backward,” she said.

Ayotte, who has a young daughter and served as the state’s first female attorney general, said equal pay for equal work is critically important but has become a political football in Washington.

Ayotte has been criticized for opposing the Democrat-backed Paycheck Fairness Act, which would make employers who violate the law liable for damages in civil cases. Instead, she sponsored legislation based on New Hampshire’s law that she said makes clear that employers must pay men and women equal wages for equal work, without reducing the opportunity for employers to reward merit.

“I want to make sure we have equal pay for equal work but, no disrespect to all the men in the room, there’s a lot of times when the women are outworking you, and I want to make sure the merit pay piece gets included,” she said.

The incumbent also highlighted bills she’s sponsored with Democrats, including one that would create an annual $100 million competitive grant to support projects to address regional manufacturing workforce challenges and another that would designate 25 universities as “Manufacturing Universities” and provide incentives to better align educational offerings with industry needs.

Van Ostern used part of his time to criticize Sununu for opposing the expansion of commuter rail and establishing a state minimum wage higher than the $7.25 per hour federal minimum. He highlighted his work at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, which partners with companies to help mid-career workers earn degrees at less expense and repeated his call for state funding for full-day kindergarten as a way to support working parents.

Asked how the state should better market itself to businesses, he said the focus also should be on helping existing businesses eager to grow.

Sununu cited the state’s heroin and opioid crisis twice in his remarks. First, in describing his proposal to give businesses incentives to provide job training for those just leaving substance abuse treatment programs and later in saying the crisis has created public safety concerns in some cities that may discourage young workers from moving in.

“There’s an urbanization movement going on in this country, people want to be in cities,” he said. “To be very blunt about it, I love Manchester, and I love Nashua, but they are not hotbeds of where people are running to, partly because of our heroin crisis, because of the crime rates.”

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