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Mike Ross, Asa Hutchinson Spar over Tax Cuts, Ads in Debate

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LITTLE ROCK — Republican gubernatorial hopeful Asa Hutchinson and Democratic rival Mike Ross sparred over their competing tax cut plans and negative ads blanketing Arkansas’ airwaves as they squared off in an occasionally testy debate Friday night.

In their first statewide televised debate, the two ex-congressmen touted their proposals to reduce income taxes and also tried to portray one another as partisans. The two are running to succeed Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, who is term-limited.

Hutchinson said his proposal to cut individual income taxes by $100 million in his first year if elected would boost the middle class, and he accused Ross of trying to promise too much to taxpayers while falling short on specifics.

“Mr. Ross has promised something to everyone but then he won’t be definitive about what he wants to do next year. … I think we owe it to the voters of Arkansas to be specific,” Hutchinson said.

Ross called his plan to gradually cut individual income taxes by $575 million as the state can afford it the more responsible approach, and warned that Hutchinson’s plan would risk the consequences that Kansas saw after tax cuts.

“Congressman Hutchinson wants to spend more than we’re going to have in revenue growth and put us on a path of fiscal irresponsibility and record deficits and having our credit rating lowered, just as they’ve seen in Kansas,” Ross said.

At one point, Ross blamed Hutchinson for a Republican Governors Association ad that criticizes Ross about him and his wife selling their Prescott pharmacy to USA Drug as part of a $1.25 million deal in 2007. Ross has called the ad slanderous, noting that a House ethics panel said the chain paid fair market value for the pharmacy.

“He kind of wink-winked and allowed them to continue and go after my wife,” Ross said. “I think he owes my wife an apology right here right now.”

Hutchinson said he’s never raised the pharmacy sale as an issue, and noted that Ross has run a negative ad over Hutchinson claiming multiple homestead tax credits.

Hutchinson in 2012 repaid $1,050 to Pulaski County for three of the four years he claimed the credit there and in Benton County. After news reports surfaced of the tax credits in July, Hutchinson paid another $1,750 for penalties and for the credit he claimed in 2008, despite the statute of limitations expiring.

“His ad attacked my character,” Hutchinson said. “Whenever I look at that ad, I wonder is this encouraging the 18-year-old to vote?”

The two tangled over each other’s records in Washington, with Hutchinson criticizing Ross for voting for Rep. Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. When Ross interjected that he gave the nominating speech for Pelosi’s rival the only time she had opposition, Hutchinson responded: “Don’t get so defensive about your flip-flopping on Nancy Pelosi.”

Ross later touted himself as someone who can work with both parties, citing his time in Congress as a member of the fiscally conservative “Blue Dog” coalition of Democrats.

“I have a history of being bipartisan. Congressman Hutchinson has a history of being hyper-partisan,” Ross said.

The race is one of the most closely watched in the country, with Republicans hoping to complete a takeover of the state’s top offices after winning control of the Legislature two years ago.

The debate was hosted by Little Rock television station KARK and was also broadcast nationally on C-Span. The two are set to face off in a statewide televised debate hosted by Little Rock station KATV on Oct. 7.

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