First debate breaks little new ground in Pa. gov race as candidates duck some big questions



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — A new national survey estimates that Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf have spent more than $20 million airing more than 30,000 television commercials introducing themselves to voters, making the case for their campaign agendas and criticizing each other.

Monday's debate was the first face-to-face encounter between Corbett, the GOP incumbent, and Wolf, the Democratic nominee, a golden opportunity for them to go beyond clever advertising and fill in the gaps in their conflicting plans for leading Pennsylvania for the next four years.

Instead, during 45 minutes of fast-paced discussion before hundreds of guests at a state Chamber of Commerce and Industry dinner, the candidates largely ducked the moderator's probing questions and stuck to their made-for-TV talking points.

Money, or more precisely the lack of it — for education, for state taxes, for public pensions — was the central theme.

Corbett, under attack from GOP conservatives for violating his 2010 campaign pledge not to raise taxes or fees, said he would work to hold down taxes but provided no specifics about how he would balance future state budgets without new taxes or the one-time revenues and accounting gimmickry that support $2 billion-plus in spending in the current $29 billion budget.

"With me, the people (will) know that they're going to have somebody who's going to fight to make sure that we're to keep our spending as low as we can and not tax them if we can help it," he said.

Wolf, a wealthy businessman, sought to foster solidarity with the business-oriented crowd.

He said local property taxes are excessive, the state corporate net income tax rate is too high and that the personal income tax is inequitable.

"Fairness is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "I think that I should pay more."

But Wolf sidestepped a question seeking more detail about his plan to shift more of the personal income-tax burden onto the wealthiest taxpayers and use the additional revenue to increase aid to public schools in exchange for reductions in local property taxes.

The personal income tax, which generates about $12 billion a year, is paid not only by millions of residents but also by nearly 1 million businesses.

On education funding, a topic that has stirred heated debate throughout the general-election campaign, neither candidate had a ready response when moderator Dennis Owens of WHTM-TV in Harrisburg asked whether combined government funding for schools is adequate.

Wolf, who has criticized Corbett for cutting state aid by nearly $1 billion in 2011 following the loss of federal stimulus money, said he did not know how much more the state should spend but that he would consult with educators about how to proceed.

"We cannot throw money at any problem and get a good outcome," he said. Still, "I don't know if $27 billion is enough."

Corbett said he has instituted new methods to gauge the performance of educators and schools and that a special panel is working on recommendations for a new school funding formula.

"Twenty-seven billion dollars is a lot of money," he said, without saying whether that is enough.

Corbett contended during the debate that he has not raised taxes as governor, even though he supported and signed legislation that increased taxes and fees by $2.3 billion a year for transportation projection.

He refused to give Owens a clear answer on whether he would renew his no-tax pledge.

"I think my record speaks for itself."

"Was that a yes or a no?" the moderator asked.

"That's my answer," the governor said.


Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg.

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