Texas Republican Governor Debate
DENTON – Taxes and testiness dominated the first debate between the Republican candidates for governor, as Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison each suggested the other had lost contact with the truth.
"I know the truth is sometimes hard to recognize when you've been in Washington for 16 years," Perry said. "The truth is that we have the second-lowest tax burden in America as a state."
Hutchison countered that the state is facing a huge deficit, made larger by the $12 billion in federal economic stimulus funding that Perry accepted and the Legislature relied on to balance the state budget. "The buck stops at your desk," she said.
The pair was joined by Debra Medina, a state-sovereignty advocate who has suggested eliminating property taxes, gun restrictions and many drug laws. And she helped Hutchison put Perry on the defensive. But the night was dominated by the open warfare between Perry and Hutchison, two titans of Texas Republican politics who have battled for months in advance of their March 2 primary.
Much of the hourlong debate, sponsored by Dallas public television station KERA and other news organizations, focused on federal issues and tax and budget matters. Questions also delved into two topics that drive Republican voters: abortion and illegal immigration. But the candidates scarcely discussed education, transportation, college tuition or other key issues facing the next governor.
Perry strove to stick to his main themes: that Texas is the envy of other states because of its relatively strong economy and that Washington regulations will drag the state down.
"While America was losing 3 million jobs because of the Washington type of spend-it-all, spend-it-now approach, Texas was creating almost 100,000 jobs," Perry said.
Hutchison argued that the state may lose its luster quickly with looming deficits, high dropout rates, rising taxes on businesses and cronyism creeping into Austin.
"We lost 300,000 jobs in Texas alone this year. That is not a record to be proud of," she said.
She added: "If we don't deal with the problems of this, we will not remain the best state in America. And hiding from them is not the way to make it better."
The governor became particularly testy when he was questioned about job-creation numbers, which relied on statistics from two years ago. When asked if Texas hadn't lost jobs this year, Perry retorted: "I don't know how to explain this to you any simpler."
He said people were voting with their feet and moving to Texas.
"It really wears me out that we have two people on stage here that want to tear Texas down, when the fact is that everyone understands this is the state you want to live in," he said.
Perry and Hutchison also interrupted and questioned each other on the $700 billion federal bailout. She voted for the first part of the spending under the Bush administration, which Perry has taken to paint her as a Washington insider.
She pointed out that the governor wrote a letter to Congress urging it to pass a bill to save the national and global economy. He contends that he didn't necessarily mean the TARP bailout that Congress eventually approved.
"We thought you were smart enough to understand [it meant] to stop the spending and cut the taxes," Perry said. "Maybe I should have made it a little clearer for you."
The TARP bill was the only proposal before Congress when he wrote the letter, she shot back, saying he was being disingenuous on the issue.
"Governor, you asked for it, too; you were for it before you were against it," she said, harking to back to the criticism of John Kerry when he ran for president.
The other issue that divided the two sharply was the $16 billion property tax cut that was swapped for broader taxes on businesses, smokers and used-car sales.
The senator said property owners never saw a decrease because appraisals kept rising. The business tax, Hutchison contended, has burdened small shops and amounted to the largest tax in state history.
"You have permanently increased taxes on business," she said. "That's not conservative."
Medina was even harsher, saying Texas would become California and saying the governor was "painting a rosy picture that doesn't exist."
But Perry held firm, touting the cut in the tax he signed last year that benefited 44,000 small businesses.
"We have a state that's rolling. People are leaving their states to come here," he said. "They wouldn't be coming to Texas, senator, if it was the kind of place you've painted it the last six months."
Hutchison said the future under Perry looks grim.
"You are presiding over a budget that's getting ready to go into a $17 billion deficit," Hutchison said.
Perry responded: "We will cut it. Just like we did in 200