Democrats try to set themselves apart in Pa. gubernatorial debate

Stress their ideas while sniping at Corbett's policies

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Like a boxer answering the bell, state Treasurer Rob McCord bounced up as he offered the evening's first answer on how he would pay for his education proposals.

"I love this question," he said, before reminding a crowd of several hundred that he had proposed a 10 percent tax on natural gas drilling. That's the highest rate of any of the four Democratic candidates for governor, a fact he reminded the audience again and again of during a 90-minute forum on education at Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 school.

All of the Democratic candidates have proposed some sort of natural gas severance tax, but Mr. McCord's rivals, with some differences in detail, have offered severance tax plans with rates of roughly 5 percent. Mr. McCord pointed at every opportunity to his contention that the arithmetic of his plan would allow him to do more to further the education funding goals broadly shared by the Democratic field.

"You heard a lot of agreement tonight on this stage," U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County noted in her closing statement, while trying to distinguish herself by boasting that, as a state senator and later in Congress, she had amassed a track record of results on the education initiatives that produced so much agreement among the Democratic contenders.

"No one on this stage has more of a record of experience and accomplishment than I do," she asserted.

The overwhelming accord among the Democrats was that the incumbent, Gov. Tom Corbett, had undercut the state education programs at every level. They vied to demonstrate how they would reverse those policies.

It's a mantra among the challengers that the Corbett administration gutted the state's schools by cutting $1 billion in education funding. The administration disputes that analysis. They blame the education funding cuts that opened the Corbett term on the expiration of the federal stimulus funding and argue that by the third year of his term, education funding had actually increased.

Other areas of agreement on the East Liberty stage involved opposition to school vouchers, the need to scrutinize charter school funding and a consensus that testing had become an overused tool that inhibited actual learning.

There was some light jousting among the Democrats. Katie McGinty kiddingly suggested that Tom Wolf, the York businessman who has established an early lead in the Democratic contest, had displayed an insufficient appreciation for the virtues of recess. The MIT Ph.D. took pains to assure the crowd that he was in fact pro-recess. But the evening's real vitriol was directed exclusively at the Republican incumbent.

Citing a report by former Auditor General Jack Wagner, Mr. Wolf said that current law directs as much as $400 million in excess funding to charter schools and similarly penalizes the school districts forced to divert tax dollars to the private schools.

The Democrats also echoed one another in the contention that the state should adopt a more equitable formula for distributing basic education subsidies. Ms. McGinty argued that the current formula was the product of "a backroom political deal."

Ms. McGinty noted that she and her nine siblings had attended parochial schools in Philadelphia, but emphasized that her family had never expected taxes to pay for their choice.

Mr. McCord reminded the crowd that he had been endorsed by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union, while Ms. Schwartz cited her backing from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

The candidates met as new campaign finance reports offered a glimpse at the race's financial metrics. They showed that Ms. Schwartz had the best fundraising quarter among the Democratic contenders for governor. But with roughly six week left before the May 20 primary, Mr. Wolf remained the leader in available cash despite a relatively modest level of new receipts.

Ms. Schwartz raised about $1.55 million from January 1 to March 31, adding to the $4.6 million she had at the beginning of the year. She had $5.1 million in cash March 31, the last day of the reporting period.

Mr. Wolf had just over $7 million left at the end of the quarter despite having been the spending leader so far. He spent $5.3 million in the first three months of the year, most of it on the heavy television advertising that has reshaped the race. He had started the year with just under $11 million, most of that from his own funds, although he acknowledged to The Philadelphia Inquirer recently that nearly half of the $10 million he donated to the campaign came from a bank loan.

Mr. McCord, who had entered the year with roughly $6 million, raised $597,649, the lowest total of new receipts. He ended the quarter with $3.6 million in cash after spending just under $3 million. He also reported the largest debt among the contenders with $2.1 million owed.

Ms. McGinty, the former DEP secretary, had a healthy fundraising quarter with contributions of $1.1 million. She still ended up at the back of the pack in cash on hand with $1.6 million balanced by debts of about $535,000.

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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