Republican gubernatorial front-runner Tom Corbett broadened his no-new-taxes pledge Saturday during a televised debate with Democratic rival Dan Onorato, saying it also rules out increases in fees — such as motor-vehicle levies — or employee contributions to the state unemployment trust fund.
Corbett's shift in position came early in an hourlong debate in which the candidates also sparred over the question of taxing Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry and disagreed on a bill that would expand Pennsylvanians' right to use deadly force against an attacker.
Corbett's comments during the first gubernatorial debate on Sept. 27 about the possibility of increasing what employees, but not employers, pay into the fund prompted sharp criticism from Onorato and his allies in organized labor. He also had said that the pledge — written by the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform — did not rule out possible increases in fees.
"I've had time to think about it," Corbett said after the debate when asked why he had changed his mind.
Onorato said Corbett's shift was just "another example of someone not prepared to govern."
"We've got 17 more days before the election," he said. "It could change again."
The debate, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters and broadcast on WPXI-TV, was moderated by Philadelphia Daily News political columnist John Baer.
Corbett and Onorato are vying to replace Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell, who will step down in January after having served the maximum two terms.
It is the second of three planned debates. The last one is set for Monday night in Philadelphia.
Corbett, a career prosecutor serving his second term as state attorney general, has maintained a clear lead in most independent polls since he and Onorato were selected as their parties' standard-bearers. A September survey by Quinnipiac University of likely Pennsylvania voters showed Corbett with a 15-point lead.
The 61-year-old Corbett is running on his office's ongoing prosecution of corruption in the Legislature and, like many GOP candidates in this year's midterm elections, riding a wave of voter discontent aimed mainly at Democrats. He has promised to slash taxes and spending and vowed to get state government "out of the way" so businesses can create more jobs.
Onorato, 49, now in his second term as Allegheny County's elected chief executive, has sought to portray Corbett as disengaged from the issues of the campaign and unseasoned as an executive.
Onorato also advocates imposing a severance tax on Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry to raise money for environmental protection and charges that Corbett opposes a tax because the industry has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign.