FARMINGTON — Republican Gov. John G. Rowland and Democratic challenger Bill Curry squared off over fiscal issues Monday in the fourth and final debate leading up to the Nov. 5 election.
Focusing on the impending budget crisis, potential changes in property and income tax rates, and campaign finance reform, the candidates seemed to paint the state as a string of extremes. Connecticut is among the wealthiest states in the nation, the candidates said; yet Hartford, its capital, is the poorest city with a population of more than 100,000.
Justifying his proposed property tax cut, Curry said Connecticut’s citizens were the highest-taxed people in the country. Rowland claimed first-place status for the state’s students in the areas of math, science, writing and SAT participation in an effort to quell fears of a declining level of academic achievement.
Before the bright lights of television cameras and underneath the spangle of brass chandeliers, the cause of such disparities in the candidates’ claims was well-illuminated: money — in particular, a $390 million state deficit.
Rowland listed the successes of his eight-year tenure in Hartford, specifically an increase in parkland throughout the state, increased safety in urban areas, the revamping of state institutions of higher education, and a high incidence of welfare recipients finding jobs.
“Our schools were crumbling, we had lost 150,000 jobs,” said Rowland, a two-term incumbent. “Frankly, people were leaving the state in droves. And over the past eight years, we’ve corrected that.”
Rowland admitted economic hardship in the state, but said it was not unusual in light of national struggles.
“These are difficult times we’re facing,” said Rowland. “We’re going to have to hold the line on spending.”
When asked about a possible income tax hike, Rowland remained noncommittal.
“I’m not going to draw any lines in the sand,” he said.
Curry promoted his own budget proposal and noted the non-specific nature of the governor’s largely unannounced plans.
“The state is dead, flat, busted broke,” said Curry, throughout the hour-long question and answer rebuttal session. “Is there one index of failure this crowd has missed?”
Curry proceeded to accuse Rowland of not standing up for Connecticut citizens against big corporations such as pharmaceutical and tobacco companies and of pandering to the special interest groups that supported his candidacy.
“One thing that you can be sure of is that he doesn’t get it. Private money runs this state,” Curry said. “A government beholden to special interests can never serve the people. We need to change the government from a lap dog into a watchdog.”
Rowland, who said he does not support publicly funded elections, countered with a rare personal retort.
“When you’re behind in the polls, you tend to complain about the system,” he said.
The candidates also discussed recent efforts to restore Connecticut’s urban centers. Rowland hyped a $600 million plan to rebuild New Haven schools and made ambitious claims about the safety of the state’s cities.
“We can all go into our cities at any time of day and feel safe.”
Curry called Rowland’s urban plan “an expensive failure.”
“We want livable cities, not just visitable cities,” said Curry, referring to what he said was an increasing trend of suburbanites frequenting the cities only on weekends.
Rowland concluded by emphasizing his experience and an unwillingness to tax Connecticut residents further.
“It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and make headlines. Here we have the contrast of accomplishment versus criticism,” Rowland said. “If you elect Mr. Curry, you’ll see your taxes increase.”
Curry addressed the same issue.
“The government has been mortgaged to the past,” Curry said. “[The budget crisis] has been sitting here, the elephant in the living room, for eight years. I’m going to face it and I’m going to solve it.”