Tom Barrett and Scott Walker take questions from WISN-TV's Mike Gousha

The showdown between gubernatorial candidates Scott Walker and Tom Barrett centered on two themes — who has kept their promises and whom can we trust with the state?

The 90-minute debate featured questions from WISN-12′s Mike Gousha and citizens around the state, which provided a broad look at both candidates. However, they had their own agendas.

Walker repeated his theme of “getting the government out of the way of business’.” He added that voters can believe his promise of tax cuts and a balanced budget because he has kept his promise to Milwaukee County taxpayers by never proposing a budget that increased the tax levy from the previous year.

Barrett jumped at that opening, pointing out that the county tax levy has increased $39 million since 2001, when Walker took office and made that promise.

“I take responsibility for the city’s tax levy increasing $45 million since 2006,” Barrett said. “I’m not making any promises here. I’ll give it to you straight. We have a serious structural deficit in the state ($2.7 billion for the next biennium budget). I will try, but won’t promise the status quo.”

Walker shot back that Barrett hadn’t kept his promise to stop sewage dumps by MMSD, a campaign point he made in 2004. Barrett responded, saying that the deep sewer project has increased capacity by 25 percent since he took office, but Walker’s blocking of a retention pond in Wauwatosa is the reason the capacity hadn’t doubled.

Barrett said his pledge to put “Madison on a diet” will reduce the impending budget hole. He says he’ll accomplish that by having all public employees enter a purchasing pool for health care to take advantage of economies of scale, reducing levels of Medicaid fraud and also by eliminating the state treasurer and secretary of state positions. The last two might items might be harder to do, since they are constitutionally elected offices.

Walker said he will fill the budget hole by making tax and spending cuts across the board, having state workers contribute a percentage to their pensions and removing unfilled, funded positions from the state budget. He said these moves will spur investment, attract businesses and increase revenues in the state coffers.

Both men agreed that education (both K12 and higher education), along with public safety and health are important state-funded programs and both said they would work to protect them. However, Barrett repeated that he would not promise to hold harmless anything in the state budget, and the status quo may not be able to be maintained.

“This is all about trust,” Barrett said. “He promises tax cuts, but I won’t say that because it will decimiate education. I won’t say or do anything to get elected.”

Barrett went after Walker on the bad news from the Greater Milwaukee Committee, which predicted last week that Milwaukee County’s health care and pension obligations will take every tax dollar within six years, leading to drastic transit cuts, park closures and layoffs.

“He promised to clean up the pension kickback problem, and just recently another county employee retired with a million dollar payoff. It wasn’t his fault, but he hasn’t reformed it,” Barrett said. “All Milwaukee city employees pay towards their pensions while he low-balls his pension obligations then borrows $400 million to cover the real costs.”

Walker defended his use of pension obligation bonds to pay the pension shortfall. “I inherited that debt and used a responsible bond to save taxpayers up to $240 million over 25 years.”  He added that he predicted the county’s potential financial demise years ago due to public sector salaries and benefits being out of control.

“We cannot survive when public employees are ‘the haves’ and the taxpayers are ‘the have-nots,’” Walker said.

Barrett’s response to a similar problem with the city’s pension obligation was to raise taxes by $49 million. “I believe in paying cash, not charge cards.”

Phosphorus regulations and DNR secretary appointment issues separate the two candidates, with Walker saying the governor needs to be the responsible party over the DNR and regulations over businesses have to be balanced by the potential costs to the economy. Barrett said he would return to the time when the DNR Secretary was appointed by the DNR board and regulations have to be implemented to protect the environment and citizens.

But the final question, from a widower who lost his wife to leukemia, took the debate to the level of a schoolyard argument of “did so, did not” rhetoric.

Barrett is in full support of stem cell research– adult and embryonic stem cells — research that was developed in labs at UW-Madison. He described a conversation he had with a researcher at the university, where he realized these people are smarter than him and “are doing the Lord’s work.”

“If I was the parent of a sick child in need of this, I would want this work to be done,” he said. “Politicians shouldn’t tell world-class researchers what to do. If this type of research is cut off, the businesses connected to them will leave the state.”

Walker said he is supportive of stem cell research, but only with adult stem cells.  He cited his own experts, who told him the best potential for cures is in adult cell research.

“There is no controversy here,” Walker said. “I will put state resources behind ethical research, that is all I can control as governor.”

As is typical with a debate, candidates often veered from the question asked and went with a talking point — Barrett asking if Walker can be trusted with the state after mismanaging the county, and Walker reminding voters of his fulfilled promises. Some members of the audience were left with unanswered or incomplete questions, so watch TCD for Election 5Qs with Barrett and Walker later this week.

Then you can decide for yourself who should be in charge of Wisconsin for the next four years.

Miss the debate? Click  here to watch Part 1 and Part 2.

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