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Taxes at forefront of 1st Pa. governor debate between Corbett, Wolf | TribLIVE.com
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Taxes at forefront of 1st Pa. governor debate between Corbett, Wolf

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Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, left, and Democrat Tom Wolf shake hands at the end of a gubernatorial debate hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, in Hershey, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
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A Syrian Kurdish refugee child is lifted over barriers as Syrian refugees cross into Turkey near the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province September 22, 2014. Syrian Kurds battled to defend a key border town from an Islamic State advance on Monday as Kurdish youths from neighbouring Turkey rushed to their aid, heightening the pressure on Ankara to act against the Islamist insurgents. In Turkey, struggling to manage an influx of more than 130,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees since last week, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon at Kurdish protesters who accuse Ankara of favouring Islamic State against the Kurds. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT SOCIETY IMMIGRATION)

HERSHEY — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and Democratic challenger Tom Wolf traded charges over taxes and education in their first debate before Pennsylvania voters choose their next governor on Nov. 4.

Trailing in the polls, Corbett pressed Wolf for specifics on his tax plan. Wolf decried cuts in education under Corbett resulting in 27,000 job losses in education and “property taxes through the roof.”

Corbett, 65, of Shaler and Wolf, 65, of York County squared off on Monday night in the debate before almost 1,900 people attending the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry’s annual dinner in the Hershey Lodge. Two more debates will follow: Oct. 1 in Philadelphia and Oct. 8 in Wilkinsburg.

The debate featured an incumbent in need of a win against a wealthy businessman, running as an outsider, who has never trailed in the polls, political experts said. Analysts expected Corbett, trailing by an average of 17 points, to be the aggressor while Wolf would protect his lead by playing it safe.

Wolf has made $6 billion in campaign promises without specific plans for how to pay for it, Corbett charged. From what is known, “everyone above $60,000 (annual income) is going to pay more,” the governor said. “I think it’s time he shared his plan.”

Wolf said he is seeking a plan for “tax fairness.”

He implied middle-income taxpayers could get a break. “Middle-income taxpayers haven’t had a break in 20 years,” Wolf said. Wealthier people should pay more, he said, and property taxes should be lower on homeowners. But he offered few specifics.

“Fairness is in the eye of the beholder,” Wolf said. “I think I should pay more.

“If I am elected, I’ll do everything I can to make sure taxes are fair.”

Corbett said he’s kept taxes low and denied that a $2 billion gas tax increase he signed violated a 2010 no-tax pledge. It was an adjustment in an artificial tax cap, he said.

“That bill was not an increase in taxes. It was removal of a cap,” he said.

On education, Corbett said he and Wolf are not that “far apart. We agree we have to make it better. We’re not hearing any answers (from Wolf).”

Wolf expressed his support for a 5 percent shale gas tax, which Corbett opposes. Wolf has recently adjusted the revenue for that tax from $500 million to $1 billion. A theme of his campaign is using that money for education.

Corbett has emphasized making Pennsylvania attractive for gas drillers to generate more jobs.

With neither candidate especially “charismatic,” it would have taken a huge gaffe by a candidate or one of them “knocking the other completely off his game” for Wolf or Corbett to gain momentum as a result of news coverage of the debate, said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester. Wolf needed to play it “close to the vest, take few risks and hold his lead.”

Corbett needed a great night to help give his campaign a boost, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

While Corbett was the aggressor, there was no single dramatic moment.

Borick said research on debates points to “very modest impacts on voter decisions.”

“Very rarely do people change their candidate preferences after watching a debate, so the impact is usually among undecided voters who actually tune in. Of course, viewing audiences outside of presidential debates are quite small and, therefore, the impact on even undecided voters is often quite small.”

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].

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