Sparks fly, but limited policy differences emerge, at GOP governor debate

COLUMBIA — Despite several instances of heated accusations centered around campaign donations, the four candidates vying for Missouri’s Republican nomination for governor agreed on one thing: Better business practices lie at the heart of improving Missouri.

Throughout the two-hour debate hosted at Columbia’s Missouri Theatre, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, former Missouri House Speaker Catherine Hanaway and political newcomers John Brunner and Eric Greitens all said they support enacting “right-to-work” legislation and reducing Missouri’s income tax.

The debate began with each candidate describing how they would attract more high-paying jobs to Missouri. Even with unemployment the lowest it’s been since 2001 — at 4.2 percent, according to the state’s latest jobs report — the candidates agreed that better jobs are still necessary to boost a poverty rate of 15.5 percent.

Kinder said the current Missouri income tax of 6 percent is too high and discourages business from setting up shop in Missouri. He said he would work to lower this rate by cutting restrictions for the Department of Natural Resources, saying these cuts would allow the department to better work with Missouri agribusinesses and promote job growth in that area.

Brunner said tort reform would be his first target in improving Missouri’s economy. He cited an annual ranking by the American Tort Reform Association that said Missouri has the fourth-worst judicial environment in the nation.

Republican governor candidate Peter Kinder listens to opponent Eric Greitens as he replies to Kinder's past statement during the debate at Missouri Theatre in Columbia on March 17, 2016. The debate was hosted by the University of Missouri, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, and KOMU 8. | Kelsey Lawing/For Missouri Business Alert
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder listens to former Navy SEAL and noprofit executive Eric Greitens as he responds to Kinder during Thursday night’s GOP debate. | Kelsey Walling/For Missouri Business Alert

Hanaway and Greitens proposed plans that revolve around simplifying Missouri’s tax code and passing the so-called right-to-work measure, which would bar companies from requiring union membership or dues as conditions of employment.

Candidates also addressed Missouri’s crumbling infrastructure. Currently, about 640 of the state’s 10,400 bridges are in critical condition, and 11 percent of major roads are in poor condition.

Each candidate said they did not want to allocate sales tax money to the Missouri Department of Transportation’s budget or institute toll roads and a higher fuel tax. Though the candidates were united in their opposition of these practices, no candidate provided a clear plan for providing the $160 million in additional funding state transportation officials say they need to maintain the system.

The question of raising the minimum wage was posed to the candidates as well. Kinder said he would not raise the minimum wage, saying it would artificially increase the price of labor. Brunner similarly said he wouldn’t touch the minimum wage. He focused instead on touting his work as a Missouri business owner.

A flurry of heated exchanges erupted when Hanaway used her response time to criticize Greitens for accepting a $1 million campaign donation from Michael Goguen, a California venture capitalist who is being sued by a woman who says he sexually and mentally abused her for a span of 13 years.

Republican governor candidate Catherine Hanaway looks over to her opponents during the debate in Columbia on Thursday, March 17, 2016. The Republican debate was held at Missouri Theatre and hosted by the University of Missouri, the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and KOMU 8. | Kelsey Walling/For Missouri Business Alert
Catherine Hanaway sparked a heated exchange when she raised the issue of recent accusations against a prominent donor to Eric Greitens’ campaign. | Kelsey Walling/For Missouri Business Alert

Goguen has made donations to the campaign of presidential candidate John Kasich as well. However, when the accusations were made public, Kasich’s campaign returned the money.

“The contributor to Mr. Greitens’ campaign has admitted he had a sexual relationship with this woman, he paid her $10 million in hush money,” Hanaway said. “The John Kasich campaign sent the money back. It’s time for Eric Greitens to send his contribution back, or better yet, send it to a shelter for abused women.”

In response to the accusations, Greitens claimed he would not convict an “extraordinarily strong supporter of veterans and the military” based on a trial of public opinion. Greitens said Goguen attended his fundraiser in California earlier this week, after the news of his civil lawsuit surfaced.

Despite the best efforts of the moderators, the debate provided little detail on plans for state spending and infrastructure repair.

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