Foley And McKinney Face Off In Bracing Exchange On Taxes And Jobs

Tom Foley, left, and John McKinney, right, before a candidate forum at WTNH in New Haven. (DANIELA ALTIMARI)

LEBANON — As in the best of horse races, the Republican candidates for governor raced to the wire Sunday as they greeted as many voters as possible in the final hours before Tuesday's primary.

Both Greenwich business executive Tom Foley and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney chatted with voters at the Lebanon Country Fair, now in its 55th year and one of the most popular fairs in eastern Connecticut. They greeted farmers and fairgoers who spent a sunny summer Sunday afternoon eating kettle popcorn, hotdogs, ice cream and lemonade.

While McKinney believes he is closing fast, Foley said his team intends to make 50,000 telephone calls to likely primary voters between Friday and Tuesday's voting in a huge effort to get out the vote.

The day began for the candidates at 8 a.m. on live television in the campaign's final debate, which featured sharp exchanges on taxes and jobs.

Foley, who lost in 2010 to Democrat Dannel P. Malloy in the closest gubernatorial race in Connecticut in more than 50 years, sought to portray himself as a can-do leader who has the experience to shake up Hartford. McKinney, the Republican leader in the state Senate, emphasized his skills as a veteran lawmaker who understands the complexities of the state budget and has the political courage to make tough choices.

While the candidates were asked about everything from marijuana policy (both oppose legalizing the drug) to the Common Core educational curriculum (both were critical), fiscal issues dominated the hour-long forum, which was hosted by WTNH-TV and broadcast statewide on Channel 8.

With just two days of campaigning before Tuesday's primary, Foley, the party-endorsed candidate, continued to strike the cautious tone that has guided him since he formally entered the race earlier this year. McKinney, the underdog, was more aggressive, repeatedly challenging Foley for what he said was a pervasive fuzziness and lack of detail.

"You don't want to answer a single question,'' an exasperated McKinney said at one point.

Differences On Tax Policy

Both candidates have been highly critical of the fiscal stewardship provided by Malloy, the governor they are vying to tangle with in November. While McKinney and Foley share a core belief that government should be more efficient and taxes need to be cut, they differ in the details.

Foley is proposing a cut in the state's 6.35 percent sales tax, which he said would help all taxpayers, particularly those on the lower income rungs, who would be more likely to plow those savings back into the economy. "That puts money in everybody's pocket,'' he said.

Foley said his experience in the private sector has made him an expert in helping organizations become more efficient. "For 35 years, I've been running large organizations,'' he said. "I actually have experience doing this. John has no experience ... running a large organization."

McKinney has put forth a two-year budget plan that, following a year of spending cuts, would eliminate the income tax for residents who earn less than $75,000 a year. The initiative would cost $746 million and eliminate income tax liability for an estimated 1 million filers, McKinney said. He also proposes cutting spending by $1.4 billion in the 2016 fiscal year.

"We've detailed how we would reduce spending levels,'' McKinney said. "We've put the numbers out there. and we've been criticized for it because quite frankly, there are very tough decisions you have to make.

"But,'' McKinney added, "I know that because I've actually built state budgets, line by line, department by department, agency by agency, I know how to do that ... It's one of the reasons why I'm the better candidate to run for governor."

McKinney repeatedly touted his 16 years in the legislature as a plus. He compared his experience to that of other nationally known Republican governors, including John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. "Their backgrounds? Like mine, Tom — legislative experience, working in government,'' McKinney said. "None of them had the background you have. The best Republican governors in the country didn't manage anything like you say. Their experience is like mine."

But McKinney's record provided fodder for Foley, who combed through 16 years of votes and found much to criticize. "You have repeatedly voted for tax increases,'' Foley said. "You have repeatedly voted for budgets that have resulted in very significant increases in spending, so you've had some kind of epiphany here in the last three weeks and all of a sudden you're a fiscal conservative.

"I'm glad you've finally come on board and seen the light,'' Foley added. "Your voting record certainly doesn't support what you're talking about.''

At that, McKinney pulled out a thick stack of papers from a binder. "Here's every budget I've voted on in 16 years,'' he said.

"Every one of them has a spending increase,'' Foley retorted, setting the stage for the sharpest exchange of the morning.