GOP candidates for governor diverge on policy, personality in final debate


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Record political columnist Charles Stile and State House reporter Dustin Racioppi offer their analysis of the second and final debate between Republicans Jack Ciattarelli and Kim Guadagno. The 90-minute debate took place at the NJTV studio in Newark.
John C. Ensslin

Seeking to gain ground in the final three weeks of the primary campaign, Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli presented himself to voters Thursday night as the entrepreneurial fresh face for Republicans after nearly eight years of stagnancy under Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and her boss, Chris Christie.

But where Ciattarelli swam in details of school funding inequality and his five-point plan for New Jersey, Guadagno persistently returned to the core themes of her campaign, property taxes and government efficiency. She was so on message, it seemed during the Republicans’ final debate before the June 6 primary, that she commonly responded to complex questions over policy with a favored prescription: Conduct an audit.

Guadagno has been heavily criticized in the weeks since she unveiled her property tax “circuit breaker” proposal, which would cap the school spending on a homeowner’s property tax bill at 5 percent of household income. The plan relies on about $1.5 billion in savings, including about $250 million in savings by auditing Trenton, and what Ciattarelli has called “phantom revenue” to pay for the tax relief.

She didn’t end there Thursday night. When asked about funding for mass transit, she called for an audit so the state can determine its flaws and potential savings. On Christie’s $300 million plan to renovate the State House, Guadagno said “we should have an audit.” And she said she would “first audit everything” related to roads and bridges when she was asked how she would have funded the Transportation Trust Fund, since she opposed the 23-cent-a-gallon increase signed by Christie last year.

“The lieutenant governor’s answer to everything anymore is audits,” Ciattarelli said. “I don’t know why she’s an attorney,” he later added. “Audits is the answer to everything.”

Ciattarelli’s response is just one indicator of his apparent frustration throughout the hour-long debate. He charged multiple times through the evening that Guadagno has intentionally distorted his record as a legislator to portray him more as a tax-and-spend liberal than a fiscal conservative.

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As she has done frequently over the last several weeks, Guadagno said Thursday night that Ciattarelli intends to increase taxes by $600 million. Ciattarelli says that is misleading. While he would add two new tax brackets to high-income earners, it is part of a broad tax restructuring that includes the elimination of the corporate business tax and reductions elsewhere that he contends “lowers everyone’s overall tax bill.”

The exchanges became testy at points.

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Record political columnist Charles Stile and State House reporter Dustin Racioppi interview Assemblyman and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Jack Citarelli at the Time To Eat Diner in Bridgewater.
John C. Ensslin

“We do have a good business environment. But people can’t afford to live here. And that’s what I haven’t heard Jack talk about,” Guadagno said.

“You know, Jack has had six years in the Assembly to get this restructuring package through — or any of his five-point plan. And the first I’ve heard about the five-point plan is now?” Guadagno said. “How can you want to be the governor of the state of New Jersey when you can’t even get your five-point plan or your restructuring of taxes though?”

Ciattarelli responded: “Why do you think I’m running for governor? Do you think the Democratic majority is going to allow me to put through the five-point plan as a freshman or sophomore in a minority that’s ever dwindling?”

Ciattarelli noted that when he was elected to the Assembly in 2012 there were 34 Republicans in the 80-member Assembly, and now there are 28. “We’ve lost legislators in your home county. That’s how difficult it has been.”

Guadagno said her many travels around the state in charge of cutting red tape and growing the economy has taught her that she is the right person to build on the administration’s work the past two terms and finally achieve the long-sought goal of lowering property taxes. 

“We have the highest taxes in the country. Enough,” Guadagno said. “The people are telling me — and I don’t know what they’re telling Jack — but they’re telling me they can’t afford it anymore,” she added. 

But Ciattarelli said Guadagno has had two terms to see through her agenda and has been unable to execute it. And looking to the Democratic front-runner for governor, Phil Murphy, he said that Guadagno would be outmatched should she win the primary and move on to the general election. 

“I have a plan. She doesn’t. And I can beat Phil Murphy,” Ciattarelli said. “Republicans have a choice. Seven-plus years that have tried but failed, or a completely new direction for our state and our party.” 

 

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