As the 2010 gubernatorial candidates squared off in Connecticut’s wealthy southwestern corner this afternoon, the debate quickly focused on taxes, an oppressive business climate and a congested transportation network.

“We’re doing business pretty much the same way now as we did” two decades ago, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont said in the five-candidate debate sponsored by business and transportation advocacy groups at the Stamford Plaza Hotel. “And our competitors are starting to eat our lunch.”

Lamont, the Democratic frontrunner according to a late May poll from Quinnipiac University, continued a theme he launched in a television ad this past weekend, comparing himself to Lowell P. Weicker Jr., Connecticut’s former third-party governor who led the state through a recession in the early 1990s.

Lamont said he is “not afraid to shake things up, not afraid to take on the Democrats and the Republicans.” And though he talked about the need to “fundamentally reform” how state health care programs are purchased and delivered, he didn’t address the single-largest factor that impacts costs — the level of health benefits provided to public employees and to low- and middle-income families.

Greenwich Republican Tom Foley was quick to point out that Weicker pledged in the 1990 gubernatorial campaign not to seek a state income tax in his first term, and then proposed one two months after taking office — and signed one into law in August 1991.

“I can promise you in a Foley administration, what you hear from me now, you will get,” he said. “We can solve this budget deficit without any new taxes.”

Former Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy, who won the endorsement of the Democratic State Convention, repeated his assertion that tax hikes must be a part of a state budget solution that also includes programmatic spending cuts and labor concessions.

But Malloy also said he would weigh any increases in income, corporate or other taxes against the tax networks in neighboring states to ensure the business climate can grow. “We need to make sure we’re not shooting ourselves in our own toes in terms of job production.”

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, a Stamford Republican, said during the 2010 legislative session that he would not propose any tax increases to solve the $3.4 billion deficit projected for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the first budget Connecticut’s next governor must address.

Fedele said today that spending cuts and streamlining state government would remain his top focus to stimulate the business climate.

But he also warned that unless the next governor forces the legislature to dramatically cut spending before taxes are debated, real change would not occur. “The more (revenue) we give them, the more they spend,” he said.

Simsbury Republican Oz Griebel, who is on leave from his post as president of the Greater Hartford Metro Alliance, said the next governor must not only dramatically curb spending, including “serious restructuring” of public employee benefit plans, but also begin the process of upgrading the state’s the state’s infrastructure, particularly its transportation network.

“Investing in transportation infrastructure is critical toward keeping the private sector fully engaged and getting people back to work,” he said, citing the University of Connecticut Health Center as another worthy target of state aid “to show young people there is a future” in the state.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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