Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Republicans Engage in Final Debate

From the Pol Watchers:

The two Republican rivals of Gov. Ernie Fletcher aggressively challenged the governor on his ethics and the fiscal record of his administration in the final statewide televised debate before the May 22 primary. Former Congresswoman Anne Northup hammered Fletcher for failing to deliver on his 2003 campaign promise of "changing the culture of Frankfort."

Instead, she said he got mired in a state hiring scandal and campaigned using taxpayer’s money. "This administration has not been without scandal and because of that the Democrats are lined up to run against us," she said.

Paducah businessman Billy Harper repeatedly referenced a need for greater leadership from the governor’s office and criticized Fletcher’s record on taxes, noting that he signed off on $4 billion in debt over his term — more than any governor in state history.

Both Northup and Harper said Fletcher — and any governor — should disclose donors to funds that benefit him during an election year, such as a legal defense fund set up to help Fletcher pay his lawyer fees from the 16-month-long hiring investigation. Harper also said the law should bar people whose companies have state contracts or work with the state from donating funds to an incumbent’s campaign.

While Fletcher found himself on the defensive for much of the night, he clung to his message, touting his 2005 plan for lowering taxes on corporations and crediting it for boosting the economy, as well as filling the state coffers. "The true mark of leadership, again, is results," he said. "We’ve had four years of surpluses.

"We’re providing better benefits," Fletcher continued "We’ve done a lot to increase health care. As we’ve begun to tell the story, the support is growing."

Northup then countered that the governor has regularly trumpeted an "embellished record" in ads and speeches.

Fletcher’s campaign has repeatedly claimed he turned a $1 billion deficit into a budget surplus. When Fletcher took office in 2003, the deficit was $262 million and went up to $303 million before the governor instituted budget cuts and tapped reserve funds to cover it. Fletcher said again last night that he considered a report by former Gov. Paul Patton that called for an extra $700 million in new revenue as his defense for using the $1 billion deficit figure.

In another notable exchange, Fletcher was forced to defend his pattern of attending campaign events during publicly-funded official trips across the state. "When the Herald-Leader brought up some questions about my travel and using the state plane, we stepped back and took another look and said, ‘Yeah we’ll share those costs,’" Fletcher said.

On Friday, Fletcher’s campaign agreed to reimburse the state coffers for $19,359 in travel costs. "This administration, until they were caught, did not offer to pay it back," Northup shot back. "This is a perfect example of not having a personal ethical standard."

More concerning to her is Fletcher’s practice of holding campaign fund-raisers to solicit money from donors who were seeking some of the state projects for which Fletcher was providing state money on the same day.

Fletcher also said he has no plans to disclose donors to his legal defense fund, despite calls by his opponents. "I’m not going to expose these folks who came to me and wanted to help because of the ordeal that was unprecedented," Fletcher said, referring to the state hiring investigation.

He said the same people who have helped donate $3 million to his campaign have contributed to the legal defense fund, which he said he will disclose after Attorney General Greg Stumbo — who led the probe — leaves office in December. Northup later fired back, "If these were just the same people who were contributing to the campaign, what possible reason could there be not to disclose it and make it available to the public?"

Fletcher said he offered transparency by volunteering his tax returns to the public’s view, unlike past governors. Harper, the contractor, has been the only candidate to sign a pledge not to raise taxes offered by a Washington-based conservative group, Americans for Tax Reform. Fletcher said he signed that pledge in the past and has honored it, while Northup said she had a conservative record on taxes and didn’t want to cede decision making power to an out of state group.

Both Harper and Northup said they believed Fletcher’s 2005 tax plan did raise taxes on small businesses, cigarettes, alcohol and cable television. Fletcher then went on the offense, noting that Northup voted for tax increases as part of the 1990 Kentucky Educational Reform Act.

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