MILWAUKEE – If Republican Scott Walker is elected governor and follows through on his pledge to cut taxes amid a massive budget shortfall, essential state programs will be "ripped apart," Democrat Tom Barrett said Friday during a debate.
Walker said he would protect essential services at the same time he would cut taxes on small businesses and others as part of a plan to increase jobs in the state. He accused Barrett of attacking him in the debate, much like he did in the first one two weeks ago, because polls show he is behind.
Both candidates said the Nov. 2 election comes down to who voters trust more.
Wisconsin's governor's office is open for the first time in 28 years since unpopular incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle decided against seeking a third term. A Democrat has never been in the office for more than eight years in state history.
The White House has shown keen interest as Wisconsin is traditionally a swing state and will be important in the 2012 presidential race. President Barack Obama has already hosted a fundraiser for Barrett as well as a rally on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus where Barrett introduced him to more than 26,000 students and others.
Friday's wide-ranging, 90-minute debate was broadcast statewide from Milwaukee and included questions asked by citizens in five other cities.
Economic issues dominated the discussion, but one of the most spirited interchanges came over their positions on stem cell research.
Barrett supports abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research, which was pioneered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In response to a question, Walker said as governor he would direct state funding to research on types of stem cell research other than embryonic.
"We don't need to get caught up in the political controversy of this," Walker said.
Barrett challenged Walker, noting that he had told anti-abortion rights group Pro-Life Wisconsin that he was in favor of banning embryonic stem cell research.
"Politicians should not be telling world-renowned scientists what they should do," Barrett said.
On the economy, Walker attempted to tie Barrett to Doyle, who is leaving office instead of seeking a third term. Walker said Barrett supports the same policies Doyle championed that contributed to the current recession.
Barrett, the mayor of Milwaukee, argued that Walker, the Milwaukee County executive, hasn't followed through on promises he made before taking office eight years ago and his pledges to cut state taxes are unrealistic.
As county executive, Walker has never proposed a higher property tax levy than what was approved for the previous year. However, the county board approved increases over his veto and in proposing his next budget Walker started with the higher amount approved over his veto, not the lower amount.
That means property taxes did go up $39 million under Walker's watch.
Barrett said Walker refused to take responsibility for that increase.
Walker blamed the county board.
"The bottom line is it went up because of the county board over my veto," Walker said. "I don't control the 19 members of the county board."
Walker said Barrett hasn't followed through on his promise to stop raw sewage from Milwaukee's sewer system from being dumped into Lake Michigan.
"We're still working on it," Barrett said.
Walker defended his record, saying he can cut a variety of taxes as governor if state government is made more efficient. In particular, he wants state employees to contribute to their pension costs, find $300 million in government waste and not fund 4,000 currently vacant state positions.
Barrett said under Walker's promises to cut taxes on small businesses and repeal $1.8 billion in tax hikes passed last year, other state programs like funding for higher education and the health insurance program BadgerCare will be "ripped apart."
Both candidates promised not to raise taxes when dealing with a $2.7 billion state budget shortfall.
On other issues, Barrett said he supported an independent selection of the Department of Natural Resources secretary while Walker said he backs the current system which allows the governor to appoint that position. Walker said the DNR was "out of control" and the only way to hold the secretary accountable was having the governor appoint the position.
The third and final debate is Oct. 30 in Madison.