NEW LONDON — During his first gubernatorial debate appearance, third-party candidate Joe Visconti used nearly every question to try to get Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Republican challenger Tom Foley to debate projected state budget deficits.
Thursday night’s one-hour debate at New London’s Garde Arts Center was the former West Hartford town councilman’s first time on stage with his major party opponents and he sought to shift the event’s focus to a $1.278 billion budget deficit the state is projected to face in fiscal year 2016.
“I have not heard that discussed on this stage and this is why I am here. We have three tidal waves coming,” he said.
At one point in the debate, hosted by The Day, Connecticut Public Television, and WNPR, Visconti asked whether Foley had a “magic wand” to fix the deficit while keeping promises to hold spending flat and make a cut to the sales tax.
Malloy shrugged off the topic.
“There will not be a deficit in year one, two or three, as has been referenced,” Malloy said. The deficit projections rely on estimates the state will increase spending by 7.8 percent. The governor said his administration has increased spending by an average of 2.8 percent a year.
Visconti insisted there would need to be spending cuts. Several times during the debate, he stressed that he was not trying to blame Malloy for the deficits. Foley took a different approach, claiming Malloy was planning to raise taxes.
“There’s no other way the math works, he’s going to have to raise your taxes,” Foley said. Meanwhile, Foley said he would hold spending flat and save money by cutting some of Malloy’s economic development programs. Foley insisted he would have enough money to cut the state sales tax.
While Malloy and Foley appeared deadlocked with 43 percent of the vote in the last Quinnipiac University poll, Visconti trailed with 9 percent. At times during the debate, Malloy seemed delighted to have Visconti on stage, using him as a foil to attack Foley.
In response to a question on the strict gun control regulations passed in the wake of the Newtown massacre, Visconti called for changes to the law’s strict assault weapon definition and its limitations on extended ammunition magazines. Malloy used Visconti’s specific proposals to attack Foley for his vague disapproval of the law.
“Let me compliment Mr. Visconti — at least he tells you what he thinks and what he wants to do,” Malloy said. “. . . Mr. Visconti, I give you a lot of credit for taking this issue on. We disagree, but I give you credit.”
Later, the governor used Visconti as part of his justification for a mailer, which the Democratic Party funded on his behalf using money from an account designated for federal races. Malloy was asked whether the move “made a mockery” of state campaign finance laws. He said the party was complying with federal law, if not state law.
“Right now, we’re in a pretty tight race and we have a third-party candidate, who appears to be coming on,” Malloy said of Visconti. “And we need to spend money.”
Foley pointed out that by using the federal account to pay for the mailer on behalf of Malloy, Democrats have drawn from an account where state contractors donate.
“The’re trying to circumvent the law. The problem with the system is there probably won’t be a judicial determination until after the election. He knows that and then it will be too late to do anything about it. That is corrupt,” Foley said.
Malloy responded by pointing out, for a second time Thursday night, that Foley paid a $16,000 penalty to election regulators last year for commissioning a poll before he was officially a candidate. As Malloy questioned him, Foley twice insisted he did not pay a fine.
“I did not pay a $16,000 fine,” Foley said.
“Remember that, folks,” Malloy shot back.
Visconti took the question as an opportunity to oppose the public financing program both Malloy and Foley participated in this year.
“That’s political welfare for these fine gentlemen to run for office. Those negative ads you saw on TV? You paid for ‘em,” he said. “You won’t see our ads because we don’t have the money.”
The debate also saw the candidates debating the causes of climate change for the first time this year. Foley declined to state whether he believed it to be a man-made phenomenon.
“It doesn’t really matter, it’s happening,” he said. “A leader and people in positions of public responsibility need to address a threat. So I don’t think there’s any debate about whether it’s happening.”
Visconti said he believed climate change was in-part man made “but not the activities necessarily that some scientists believe.” Malloy answered, “Of course it matters and yes it has to do with the particulate in the air.”
After the debate, Foley told reporters he wasn’t “an expert on global warming” and hadn’t read all the reports.
Malloy had a different take after the debate.
“Tom Foley had a meltdown on climate change tonight. Of course it makes a difference because we know what’s causing climate change. It’s particulate, it’s certain greenhouse gasses being put into the atmosphere at unprecedented amounts,” he said.