The two major Republican hopefuls for the gubernatorial nomination tried to distinguish themselves during their second and final debate Thursday night, with much of the discussion focused on disagreements over who would raise taxes.
Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli from Somerset County sparred on a wide range of other issues, which included gun control, funding for women’s health centers, and transportation infrastructure during the hour-long debate co-sponsored by NJTV News and NJ Spotlight.
Their encounter touched on many of the same topics as their first debate last week, but the candidates were a bit testier. Several times, Ciattarelli called Guadagno “hypocritical” and said she has been telling “blatant lies” about his tax restructuring plan on her flyers. Guadagno was generally kinder, but kept hammering her contention, which he says is a lie, that his plan will raise taxes.
The circuit breaker
For her part, Guadagno continued to push her property-tax circuit breaker plan, which would cap at 5 percent of income the amount of money homeowners would pay for the school portion of their tax bills. She argued she will be able to pay for that program and other critical state needs at least in part through a comprehensive statewide audit.
“As governor, I will make property taxes my number one issue,” said Guadagno, the state’s first lieutenant governor and its secretary of state. “If you make it the number one priority of your campaign, then you can find $1 billion to pay for it.”
Ciattarelli, a 55-year old Hillsborough father of four, kept on his message that Guadagno’s proposal is unworkable.
“It’s an irresponsible plan,” he said. “It’s a promise that can’t be kept.”
In addition to audit savings, Guadagno said she would be able to pay for tax relief through $2.5 billion in savings garnered from changing public-sector health benefits and from revenue growth from a more robust economy, among other measures.
The five-point plan
Meanwhile, she stayed on the attack, painting Ciattarelli’s oft-referenced five-point plan as a $600 million tax increase. Ciattarelli, who is a CPA but does not work as an accountant, said that the higher taxes on high-wealth individuals that are part of his restructuring plan would be more than offset by other tax cuts. He likened it to Reagan-era tax cuts and said everyone to whom he presents the plan has said, “sign me up.”
The two also sparred over their mutual dislike of last year’s 23-cent gas tax increase, at one point arguing over who opposed it first. Guadagno said it is too late to undo that change, as some of the money is already being spent, but that she would make sure the money is allocated more fairly. Ciattarelli said he would repeal that package, meaning he would also return the sales tax to 7 percent and reinstate the estate tax, though after the debate he said he would separately repeal the estate tax as part of his five-point plan.
And he charged that Guadagno’s promise to put New Jersey back into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is as good as a tax increase because it will lead to higher electricity bills. Not addressing that assertion, Guadagno said she recognizes that climate change is real and that RGGI is the best way for New Jersey to do its part to try to reverse the process.
An unscientific poll
It’s unclear what impact the debate had; an unscientific poll of members of the audience who watched the debate live in Newark found that everyone had already made up their minds.
Guadagno has been considered the frontrunner, having earned the endorsement of two-thirds of the county Republican parties. She also was leading Ciattarelli, the founder of two medical publishing businesses, now in his sixth year in the lower house, 23-12 in the latest Quinnipiac University poll earlier this month. However, that poll found just over half of registered Republicans still undecided.
The 57-year old former sheriff and prosecutor from Monmouth Beach also leads her opponent in money: Guadagno had raised $1 million more than Ciattarelli as of their May 8 campaign reports, the most recent available.
On the attack
Ciattarelli used the opportunity to largely attack his opponent and continually questioned Guadagno’s lack of specificity on a number of issues. For instance, he said she has not put forth a plan to fix the school-funding formula, which Ciattarelli and other Republicans say gives too much money to districts like Jersey City and Hoboken while underfunding suburbs like Parsippany and Manville.
Guadagno touted the state’s economic recovery during her tenure, noting the unemployment rate is less than half what it was when she first came into office with Gov. Chris Christie: currently 4.1 percent, down from 9.8 percent. As secretary of state, part of her duties has been to promote and court businesses, and Guadagno said that last year, the state welcomed 103,000 new businesses.
Ciattarelli said those new businesses are virtually all “mom and pop shops” and not corporations, which he said do not want to relocate here because of the state’s corporation business tax, which he said he would abolish. He also noted that the state budget remains fragile, as New Jersey has suffered 11 credit downgrades during the past seven years.
“The many downgrades are a direct result of the pension problem,” Guadagno said. “Business is good here. The facts bear me out.”
She was not shy about criticizing the unpopular Christie who, as moderator Michael Aron put it, “plucked (Guadagno) out of obscurity” in 2009 and made her his running mate. To a question on NJ Transit, she criticized a new $29 million project to put 360-degree cameras on buses that Christie unveiled earlier this week, saying, “I couldn’t believe my eyes. Is that the most important thing to spend money on? Don’t we have bridges that are falling down?”
When Guadagno said she would do an audit of NJ Transit to find money to help boost the agency, Ciattarelli responded, “Her answer to everything is an audit.”
Guadagno said she has “fundamental differences with this governor,” that include not only the gas tax increase but also his $300 million State House renovation plan, for which bonds already have been sold.
“I’m running for governor. It’s important for me to run on my record,” she said. “I’m proud to talk about my record as a job creator.”
Then Ciattarelli immediately sought to tie her to the governor, saying he was running because “we need to move beyond the Christie-Guadagno era.”
Areas of accord
Despite all the rancor, the pair did agree on several issues.
For instance, neither said they would restore the more than $7 million in funding for women’s health centers that Christie cut, which has led to the closure of six centers across the state. Guadagno said tax dollars should not be used to fund abortions, adding that the administration has given money to federal health centers to make up for the cut. Ciattarelli said that while women’s health is important, “there are a number of more urgent matters, including care for veterans and mental health services, that need funding.
Both said they support relaxing New Jersey’s strict gun laws, saying it takes too long to get a permit and New Jersey should recognize concealed carry permits issued by other states to people traveling through New Jersey.
Both agreed they would decriminalize marijuana, but were unsure as to the details of such a proposal — for instance, what amount would be considered too small to be considered criminal.
And both oppose the establishment of sanctuary cities where officials would refuse to help federal immigration agents trying to detain people for potential deportation. A dozen New Jersey cities already have declared themselves sanctuaries.
There are three other Republicans on the ballot who did not qualify for the debate — a candidate had to raise at least $430,000 to qualify. Steve Rogers, a Nutley commissioner, and Joseph “Rudy” Rullo, an Ocean County landscape business owner and actor, took part in an alternative debate. Hirsh Singh, an engineer from Princeton, raised more than enough money — $1 million — but did not file his paperwork on time.