It was the first time all six candidates have appeared together at a campaign event this year.
Caption: Democrats Jack Wagner and Anthony Williams.
Taxes, tolling and pensions were the top issues during a gubernatorial forum at the National Constitution Center last night. It was the first time all six candidates have appeared together at a campaign event this year.
The four Democrats and two Republicans sat in alphabetical order before members of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
In the same place where then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton debated charged political issues like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, flag lapel pins and William Ayers, the gubernatorial hopefuls stuck to policy.
Republicans Tom Corbett and Sam Rohrer said they’d cut taxes across the board, and Democrats Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner both called for reducing the corporate net income tax.
Democrat Anthony Williams said Pennsylvania’s entire tax code needs to be reevaluated, though Democrat Joe Hoeffel tacked a different direction by saying the state needs to take in more revenue.
He said increased gas taxes and tolling should be considered, as well as a levy on natural gas drilling.
Hoeffel: And we ought to have a graduated state income tax, which would actually allow lower income people to see a reduction in their burden. Middle income folks stay the same, and wealthier pay some more because they’ve got the income and the ability to pay.
The candidates were split on the merits of tolling Interstate 80 – a proposal the federal government is expected to weigh in on within the next few weeks.
Both Republicans said the tolling plan is a bad idea – and chastised Governor Rendell and the General Assembly for basing spending plans on the assumption the tolling will be approved, Onorato and Hoeffel support tolling the east-west highway, as does Williams.
Williams: American society of civil engineers ranked Pennsylvania’s infrastructure a D. Republican and Democrat, we’re failing. We’re making highways less safe. I’ve travelled to New York, I’ve travelled to Virginia, and by the way – every time I travel to Harrisburg I pay a toll. There are no free lunches in this country. There’s no free lunch on any section of the highway in Pennsylvania.
Wagner says he’s pro-tolls, but wants revenue to be put back into I-80, instead of funding infrastructure and mass transit throughout the state.
If federal officials reject the tolling plan again, lawmakers will face a 450 million dollar budget gap.
The next governor will need to figure out how to deal with nearly four billion dollars in pension payments for public employees that are due by 2013.
All the candidates concede the current system is unsustainable.
Wagner suggested creating statewide pools for local government employees like police officers and fire fighters.
Corbett said state pension programs weren’t intended to fund people for thirty years, taking a swipe at Rohrer during his answer.
Corbett: Some of the members at this table have voted for the COLA that increased the pension that put the issue, doubled it, in some respects – at this point in time. We have to revisit it. We have to look at the eligibility requirements.
Several candidates suggested increasing the minimum amount of time worked before state employees become eligible for pensions.
A good deal of time was spent discussing reform, too.
Onorato said he’d cut back on General Assembly spending, if elected.
Onorato: I’m talking about a twenty percent savings in the cost of the legislature. This is the most expensive legislature in the United States based on two factors: how many people they employ and how much we spend on it.
And Wagner vowed to save money by making sure the state’s contracting process is competitive.
Wagner: If a contract does not have competition in the bidding process, it would be rebid. And quite frankly today, with emergency contracts, the extension of contracts, sole source contracts – that, ladies and gentlemen, is not occurring in state government.
The forum came about ten weeks before the May 18th primary. Recent polls give Corbett a wide lead in the Republican race. Most Democratic voters remain undecided, though Onorato holds a slight lead over the other three candidates.