RINDGE, N.H -- Candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor said at a debate Tuesday night that the economy is the key issue facing New Hampshire.
Walt Havenstein, Andrew Hemingway and Jonathan Smolin debated at The Monadnock Debates at Franklin Pierce University.
Answering questions submitted by residents, all agreed the next governor must focus on attracting businesses and creating jobs.
Hemingway and Havenstein are seen as the front-runners. Havenstein is a former defense industry executive who is backed by prominent names in the party while Hemingway is an entrepreneur and tea party activist. Smolin was a surgical assistant and director of the Salter School of Nursing in Manchester.
Havenstein sought to establish himself as the capable business leader who managed budgets three times the size of the state's $10.5 billion, two-year spending plan. He said his economic plan, keyed to reducing the business profits tax from 8.4 percent to 7.5 percent in the first year, will help create 25,000 new jobs by 2017. He'd pay for his plan with 2.5 percent across-the-board budget cuts.
"We're falling behind our neighboring states," he said. "It's an embarrassment. We're ranked 35th in the country when it comes to new business startups. We're seeing people leave our state for job opportunities and new business opportunities outside of New Hampshire. We have to do better.
Hemingway brandished his tea party philosophy of smaller government repeatedly, stressing that free market forces, and not the person sitting in the governor's office, would be the economic driver in the state. He proposes a flat tax, eliminating the businesses enterprise tax and business profit tax, lowering the overall corporate tax rate and trimming or eliminating regulations he says are choking the state's businesses.
"Our economy is flat and if it's flat, it's really going backward," he said. "The two biggest reasons are taxation and regulation. We need to reduce the tax burden on small business."
Smolin also took the less-is-more approach to government. He stressed that one way to improve the economy is to offer free or greatly reduced college tuition to more young people who might then stay in the state.
"We have to find a way to keep our kids here," he said. "We are, right now, a state divided into the very young or the very old."
The candidates maintained that the state's unemployment rate of 4.4 percent is misleading because it doesn't account for New Hampshire residents who work in Massachusetts or other neighboring states.
"If all the people who are employed are going to Massachusetts to go to work, it doesn't do New Hampshire one bit of good," Havenstein said. "I'm all about the economic development of New Hampshire, not Massachusetts."
And Hemingway said the number is likely higher because it doesn't factor in the underemployed.
"It's not the governor's job to lower unemployment," he said. "Our job is to get our government out of the way. We have to be serious about breathing life back into our economy and we do that by getting our government out of the way."
All three were unsparing in their criticism of the Affordable Care Act, which they said has hurt New Hampshire and should be repealed.
They also disagreed on whether the state should have casino gambling. Havenstein opposes casino gambling as an economic development platform while Hemingway suggested allowing the existing charity gambling entities to develop casino gambling. Smolin also said limited gambling would be an economic engine.
On education, all three stressed school choice in K-12 and getting rid of the much-criticized common core.
The winner takes on Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan in November.
The debates were co-sponsored by the Fitzwater Center for Communication, New Hampshire Public Television and Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.