Gov candidates give, take in first TV debate

In a substantive and at times raucous debate, Gov. Deval Patrick's opponents sought to chip away at his administration's accomplishments Tuesday, shrugging off efforts aimed at consolidating state agencies, overhauling state ethics and pension laws, and enabling cities and towns to join the state's health insurance program, hallmarks of Patrick's term.

Republican candidate Charles Baker, outlining major areas where he would attempt government reforms, said Patrick had offered a "bunts" when "we should be swinging away."

Answered Patrick: "You've never even swung at the ball."

In the first televised debate of the campaign season, Patrick pointed to his administration's policy achievements: laws toughening ethics laws and penalties, stiffening campaign finance requirements and weeding out high-profile pension system abuses; concessions from state employee unions that Patrick described as unprecedented; the replacement of police officers with civilian flaggers at certain state construction sites; a law permitting municipalities to join the state Group Insurance Commission to bring down costs.

One by one, his opponents - Baker, Independent Tim Cahill and Green Rainbow candidate Jill Stein - dismissed them as incremental, ineffective or just plain flawed policy.

"I know there's a lot of lip service given to ethics reform, but my concern is it hasn't fixed the problem. But if it didn't fix the problem that was smoldering right under its nose, what is it going to fix?" Stein asked, referring to the bill as a "scam" reform and noting a probation department patronage scandal had unfolded despite the new law.

The hour-long debate, moderated by WBZ's Jon Keller, reprised attempts to tar Baker with the legacy of the Big Dig, whose financing plan he helped craft in the mid-90s, as budget chief to Gov. Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci.

"It is a great big albatross around the neck of the people of the commonwealth," Patrick said, over Baker's protests that the state's CEO was lingering in the past to avoid discussing the present.

Patrick and Cahill each dismissed Baker's protest, noting that the Big Dig and the debt incurred amid the $16 billion project still consume a large share of state transportation dollars.

At times, Patrick and Baker grew more pointed in their exchanges, and twice Cahill jumped in to decry the "bickering" and blame assignment.

"We're not going to create jobs with the bickering back and forth," he said.

Cahill repeatedly referenced his stewardship of the state's School Building Authority, charged with helping finance school building projects, funded, in part, by a portion of the state's sales tax. He said the agency was saddled with as much debt as the Big Dig originally was, but managed its way out.

"We're still building high schools at a third the cost," he said, "spending money in the state but spending it wisely. We have less sales tax money than when we started … You can do the job. Neither one of you have done it in my mind."

Stein portrayed her opponents as ensconced in a culture of "sweetheart deals" and clouded by campaign contributions. She referenced by name Rep. Thomas Petrolati, the lawmaker enmeshed in the controversy over patronage at the state's probation department, and said she'd seek to end tax breaks for companies like Raytheon and Fidelity for "jobs that we never created."

The debate largely hewed to pocketbook issues, with Baker and Cahill decrying tax increases and pledging to create a more fertile business environment. Baker promised to "make a campaign" out of granting cities and towns the authority to unilaterally set premium rates and deductibles for their employees, a power long sought by municipal officials but left hanging by lawmakers who couldn't strike a balance with labor unions that oppose the policy.

Patrick and Cahill said they prefer union bargaining in so-called "plan design" power for cities and towns.

Both latched onto the health care issue to bludgeon Baker, who helmed Harvard Pilgrim Health Care for a decade before jumping into the governor's race. Although he brought the company back from insolvency, premiums rose on his watch, Patrick noted. He also pointed out that Baker, for all his harping on the business climate in Massachusetts, has moved company operations to Massachusetts from Rhode Island.

"You did business here. You had an option to do business elsewhere," Patrick said.

Asked about the ballot question that would slash the state's sales tax to 3 percent from 6.25 percent, Patrick made his clearest statement yet about his intentions should the measure pass.

"I get it. If the voters vote in that way, then I don't think we have any choice but to respect the will of the voters," he said. "It would be a calamity, no doubt about it. It's not that things can't be cut, it's just that the level of cuts and the impact on people would be so profound at that level, I think it's incumbent on responsible candidates to talk about that."

Stein said she would make up for the loss by asking "millionaires" to pay more in taxes, while relieving the tax burden on "middle-income and working families."

Baker said he opposed the rollback question - he favors lowering the sales and income taxes to 5 percent - because it would represent a $2.5 billion cut on top of an anticipated $2.5 billion structural deficit in the state budget next year.

"If the state was in a better position … it might've been a different story. I really do believe we've got to cut taxes," he said.

Cahill said voters should have more of a say in how they are taxed, and he said he'd spoken with anti-tax crusaders Barbara Anthony and Carla Howell - who is leading the ballot drive,

"People have lost faith in government. They've lost faith in Beacon Hill," he said. "They've lost faith in Democrats and Republicans. We've got to start listening to people."

Stein said cutting the sales tax to 3 percent would result in higher property taxes and school fees.

"It's not okay to just let the bottom fall out of our communities," she said.

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