HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) – Taxes, state government finances and education policy dominated the first debate in the Pennsylvania governor’s race Monday night, as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett sought to raise questions about the viability of Democrat Tom Wolf’s policy goals and Wolf attacked Corbett’s handling of the economy and schools.
Corbett cast himself as the candidate who will resist increasing government spending and repeatedly questioned where Wolf would find the money to raise the state’s share of public school spending to 50 percent, plus meet other priorities.
“So the question is, ‘how do you tax? Where do you get the money? What is going to be fair?’ And honestly, I think it is time that Mr. Wolf shared his plan,” Corbett said.
For his part, Wolf sought to frame Corbett as failing to capably steer the state’s economy and government finances, while he cut critical funding for public schools. To burnish his credentials, Wolf continually referred to his experience heading his family’s York-based building products business for nearly three decades as evidence he can invigorate the state’s economy and heal government finances.
“We aren’t doing as well as we should do and I think we need to look at that and say, ‘this is what we need from our state government, to set the table for robust economic growth,'” Wolf said.
Corbett, Pennsylvania’s former two-term attorney general, denied cutting aid to public schools – he blamed it on his predecessor, Democrat Ed Rendell – and said he had lived up to his promise to pursue limited government and fiscal restraint. He pointed out that he had instituted methods to better track the performance of schools and educators to underscore his argument that ensuring money is well spent is more important than how much is spent.
Education spending, he said, “has to be an investment, not just how much can we spend.”
The fast-paced 45-minute event was held in front of a packed Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry dinner in Hershey. Candidates were asked by moderator Dennis Owens of WHTM-TV in Harrisburg to answer questions in one minute. At times, they were allowed to rebut each other.
Wolf is heading into the final weeks of the campaign with a cash edge and a hefty polling lead that Corbett has been unable to crack. A Wolf victory in the Nov. 4 election would break a four-decade tradition of governors succeeding themselves with a second term.
Asked to explain Wolf’s polling lead, Corbett acknowledged that probably he had not made his case publicly, but insisted he had made tough decisions to instill fiscal discipline in government.
“I was hired to change the culture of Harrisburg, that’s what it was,” Corbett said.
Wolf refused to budge when he was pressed for details on his plans to restructure the state’s flat income tax to shift a bigger burden to higher-earners, and then to increase it in exchange for a dollar-for-dollar reduction in local school property taxes.
Wolf also could not give a number when he was asked how much more the state should spend on public education. He said he understands that the state cannot throw money at any problem and hope to get a good outcome, but he also said that Pennsylvania’s schools are not producing people that many business owners feel they can employ.
“We need to do a good job across the commonwealth to make sure that we have people with the skills that are relevant to a 21st-century economy,” Wolf said. “How much money is that going to take? I don’t know. But it’s not enough to say we’re going to spend more or we’re going to spend less. What we need to do is say, ‘we need to have a public education system that delivers.'”
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