WEST HARTFORD — Democratic gubernatorial contender Dan Malloy danced uncharacteristically close to pledging not to raise taxes during Tuesday’s final televised debate, insisting afterward he wouldn’t rule out an increase if necessary to preserve social services.

But Republican nominee Tom Foley accused Malloy of making a desperation move to counter new poll numbers that show the Democrat’s lead down to just 5 percentage points.

“I want to be very clear: We’re not going to raise taxes,” Malloy said during the forum at the studios of WVIT Channel 30. “That is the last thing we will do.” Malloy briefly paused and then awkwardly added a qualifier: “If we have to, and only then to protect the safety net.”

The former Stamford mayor, who Foley says would need to impose billions of dollars in tax hikes to preserve social services, health care, town aid and other fiscal priorities from steep budget cuts next year, said afterward he was not making an unconditional pledge.

“I have said many times before we are not going to dismantle the safety net,” Malloy said, adding he meant a tax hike wouldn’t be proposed except to safeguard social services and health care for the poor, elderly and disabled.

“You are not going to be able to reduce spending because of the commitments you have made,” Foley told Malloy during the debate.

But Foley, whose credibility has been challenged by Malloy for insisting he can close a $3.3 billion deficit without tax hikes, said afterward that the Democratic nominee’s on-air statement didn’t make sense.

On several occasions Malloy used statements such as “I don’t want to raise taxes” to counter charges that he’s planning a major increase.

But when he said “we’re not going to raise taxes,” he was reacting to Tuesday’s Quinnipiac University poll that showed the race tightening, Foley said. “He’s desperate at this point because he sees what’s going on,” the GOP nominee said, adding that “I think Dan makes this stuff up as he goes along.”

Both major party candidates used their final televised debate to try to shore up any political weaknesses in their fiscal platforms.

Foley has been repeatedly criticized by Malloy for offering too few details about how he would close a massive deficit without increasing taxes, and for counting on an economic recovery and additional federal aid well in excess of levels projected by Connecticut economists and state fiscal analysts.

But Foley said Tuesday that not only if he confident in his solution to the budget crisis, but that he himself — specifically his business acumen — is a key part of it.

“I’m a businessman,” he said. “I know what businesses need to hear and see.”

Businesses are fleeing the state not only because of high costs, but because of uncertainty surrounding a deficit-plagued state budget and bureaucratic red tape that slows the processing of environmental and other land use permits, Foley said. “They are sick and tired of the problems that come with employing people here.”

When he wasn’t emphasizing his aversion to tax hikes, Malloy was insisting “we’re going to wring savings out of the budget” and “cut, cut, cut.”

But on a night when he came close to pledging to avoid tax hikes, Malloy also spent considerable time talking about Connecticut governors who underwent notable fiscal flip-flops.

Among the examples Malloy cited were:

  • Former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, who as a third-party candidate in 1990 compared adoption of a state income tax during a recession to pouring gasoline on a fire. He then pushed through an income tax in 1991.
  • Former Gov. John G. Rowland, a Republican who said in his 1994 campaign that he would achieve repeal of the income tax, but never did so during his 10 years in office. Rowland briefly offered and then withdrew a proposal for an income tax hike on millionaires during an economic slump in December 2002, and ultimately signed an across-the-board income tax increase into law in March 2003.
  • And current Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who said throughout most of the prolonged 2009 budget debate that tax hikes were the worst thing for Connecticut at that time, then allowed about $900 million in tax hikes approved by the legislature to become law without her signature in September of that year.

“You probably can’t do what you’re saying,” Malloy said to Foley about the Republican’s no-tax-increase promise, “just like the three governors I mentioned couldn’t do what they said.”

Malloy did break new ground during the final debate when he raised two arrests in Foley’s past, an issue the Democratic nominee had avoided in prior televised forums.

Foley, a former ambassador to Ireland, was subjected to an FBI background check and a Senate review for that diplomatic post, did not disclose two long-ago motor vehicle arrests, including a 1993 confrontation with his ex-wife. Charges were dropped in both cases.

“Will you explain to the people of the state of Connecticut why they should trust you when you lied to the FBI?” Malloy said. “You’re a smart guy. You should have known that was the wrong thing to do.”

“These issues, Dan, were taken care of in the primary,” Foley said, adding afterward that it was “old news.”

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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