Sparks fly in first gubernatorial debate

    After weeks of getting blasted on the airwaves for his stance on taxes, Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski lashed out at GOP challenger Ron Saxton during their first televised debate Thursday, accusing him of catering to the "corporate elite."

    Saxton stuck mainly to the themes he has sounded throughout the campaign, calling for efficiencies and consolidation in government, and private sector solutions to many of the state’s problems.

    The debate, held at the studios of Oregon Public Broadcasting, was co-sponsored by three children’s advocacy groups, and the bulk of the questions focused on children’s issues, including early childhood education, children’s health care and foster care.

    Sparks flew in particular when Kulongoski and Saxton were allowed to pose a single question to each other.

    The governor went first, asking Saxton to square his campaign promises on reducing government waste with the time he spent as chair of the Portland school district, during which, Kulongoski charged, money was shifted from the classroom to the district’s administrative budget.

    Saxton defended his tenure, saying he had presided over a period of fiscal accountability.

    When it was his turn, Saxton asked the governor to clarify his position on a sales tax, and on a possible "time-out" for the personal income tax kicker that Kulongoski had mused about back in the spring, but from which he has since appeared to distance himself.

    Kulongoski said his thoughts about the personal kicker had been theoretical, though he said that in a perfect world, he’d revamp the system. And a so-called "consumption tax," he said, remains one possible alternative for the state, though he called it a "long-term objective."

Mainly, the debate was a chance for Kulongoski and Saxton to put their vastly different political philosophies on display.

    Kulongoski called for greater state investment in children’s health care programs, foster care, teacher mentoring programs and universal preschool. It was a template for a more active state government, supported by targeted spending, like using higher-than-expected revenue from hard liquor sales to fund drug and alcohol treatment programs.

    Saxton, too, called for some new expenses, repeating his call for higher wages for starting teachers, for example, and for an investment in Head Start. But he made it clear that he envisions a far smaller role for government in public life, saying, "There isn’t a way to solve all the state’s needs by the government providing them."

    And in response to a question about whether he’d support tax reform if public sentiment was behind it, Saxton said he’d prefer to rely on economic growth, not new taxes, to generate state revenue.

    Kulongoski hopped on that remark, slamming Saxton for his support of repealing or cutting back on the estate tax and capital gains taxes, saying that such moves would aid only "the privileged few."

The two also sparred over the state’s minimum wage, which recently rose to $7.80, second-highest in the nation. Saxton said pegging the minimum wage to the Consumer Price Index, which voters approved in 2002, drives employers to cut back on entry-level jobs, and to move to automation. Kulongoski, though, said the recent rapid growth in Oregon’s economy proves that the minimum wage isn’t a barrier for businesses.