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Democrat Paul Hodes, left, listens as Republican Kelly Ayotte, right, speaks, as they face each other for the first time since last week's U.S. Senate primary in a live forum broadcast on public radio at NHPR in Concord, N.H., Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010.(AP Photo/Cheryl Senter)
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Foes Hodes, Ayotte face off in 1st debate

CONCORD – Democratic candidate Paul Hodes of Concord and Republican Kelly Ayotte of Nashua engaged in a sharp but civil dispute over tax cuts, stimulus spending, budget deficits and congressional earmarks Wednesday in their first U.S. Senate debate.

Ayotte, a former attorney general, favors extension of all Bush tax cuts while Hodes agrees with President Barack Obama that the tax cuts should end for those making more than $200,000 a year.

“It’s the wrong philosophy to raise taxes during these difficult, economic times and that’s what he would like to do,” Ayotte said of Hodes during the one-hour event at the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Hodes, a two-term congressman, said keeping tax cuts for the wealthiest would add $700 billion and nearly double the federal deficit.

“It is simply reckless and fiscally irresponsible to allow the tax cuts to go on to the top 2 percent,” he shot back.

Ayotte alluded to the comments from some New Hampshire economists who warned repealing tax cuts for the wealthy would cost individuals and small-business owners in the state $300 million a year.

Hodes has proposed to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, and he accused Ayotte of opposing them by signing a no-tax increase pledge from Americans for Tax Reform.

“My opponent, she believes that tax cuts for shipping jobs overseas will create jobs,” Hodes said.

Ayotte said she’s opposed to tax increases of any kind,

“What congressman Hodes says is absolutely false,” Ayotte declared. “What I have said is no tax increases on any business.”

Hodes defended his 2009 vote for the $800 billion stimulus package.

“Nobody wanted to make those investments, but they had to be done; it was an emergency situation,” Hodes said.

Ayotte said the stimulus only created “temporary or government” jobs and more taxpayer-paid spending hurt the economy as national unemployment increased by 2.5 million jobs.

“It was a big government program, but it didn’t allow the growth in the private sector,” Ayotte said.

During the four years Hodes was in Congress, Ayotte said the federal deficit went up 525 percent, the debt increased $5 trillion to $13 trillion and Hodes voted for 9,000 earmarks last year.

“Congressman Hodes is wanting to portray himself as a fiscal conservative,” Ayotte said.

Hodes answered Ayotte’s opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy would cause deficits to explode and that Hodes instead proposed targeted, tax breaks for small-business owners.

“One thing we can say is that it is not fiscally conservative, and it is really hypocritical to start attacking me about deficits and then propose to double our deficit,” Hodes said.

In this campaign, both candidates call for a ban on earmarks.

Ayotte said Hodes had an election year conversion on earmarks. Hodes noted Ayotte earlier in this campaign had defended earmarks as long as they were transparent until after Hodes had endorsed the ban.

Ayotte would keep the zero federal tax on estates that will jump back up to more than 50 percent if Congress doesn’t extend that Bush tax cut.

Hodes instead wants to exempt from the tax $5 million for an individual and up to $10 million for families with a 35 percent tax applied to estate income above those caps.

Hodes said he supports extending commuter rail from Boston through Nashua to Concord despite the up-front cost of more than $250 million.

“It’s important to relieve congestion on our highways; it is important for reducing energy,” Hodes said.

Ayotte was non-committal about more money for the project in the future and strongly suggested getting additional highway dollars to complete the widening of Interstate 93 was more important.

“I don’t know if that is worth the amount of money we are putting in,” Ayotte said of the commuter rail project. “I-93 might be a greater priority.”

Hodes endorsed raising the minimum wage to include increases in cost-of-living, giving unions the option of organizing by collecting names of supporters rather than through a secret ballot vote and mandating employers offer paid sick leave to their workers.

Ayotte opposed all three proposed changes in federal labor laws.

On Social Security, Ayotte said she was open to raising the retirement age for younger workers while Hodes was against changes to the entitlement.

To empathize with the struggle working families have had through this recession, Hodes supports cutting the pay of Congress and the president by 10 percent.

Ayotte said congressional pay should be “performance-based” and predicted Hodes would not fare well under such a system given his votes on taxes and spending.

“I think that he owes the taxpayers of New Hampshire a refund,” Ayotte concluded.

The two candidates fielded 13 questions from a panel of reporters and did not get to question one another.

The Business & Industry Association and New Hampshire Union Leader co-sponsored the morning debate that focused on jobs and the economy that aired on New Hampshire Public Television.

Kevin Landrigan can be reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com.