By Deanna C. White
The September 22, 2011, Republican debate in Orlando kicked off with a clear focus on taxes and their effect on small businesses and overall economic growth. Questions regarding small business incentives, the candidates' specific tax reform proposals, and the Tenth Amendment, prompted the nine GOP candidates to air their specific or, in some cases, not so specific, views on tax reform.
Challengers who participated in the debate, sponsored by Fox News/Google, were Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Congressman Ron Paul, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, businessman and former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson.
The Orlando debate was the sixth of the campaign. As the biggest early-voting state, Florida is considered critical in the race for the Republican nomination.
The debate began with a YouTube question from Florida viewer Dave Meldeau, a small business owner, who said he lacked the confidence to hire new employees in the current economic climate. "I'd like to know what each of our candidates will do as president to incent small business owners to hire new employees and confidently grow their businesses", Meldeau said.
Perry, the first to field the question, said he felt it was critical to lower the tax burden on small business owners and provide them with a regulatory climate that was fair and predictable. He also recommended sweeping tort reform. "We have to get the government off the backs of small businessmen and women", Perry said. "That's the way you free up all those small business entrepreneurs so they know they can risk their capital and have a chance to have a return on investment.
Moderators posed questions to Romney, Huntsman, and Cain about their specific tax proposals.
When asked about recent Wall Street Journal criticism that his "59-point plan" was "surprisingly timid and tactical", Romney flipped the question back to the small business issue, saying he believes government needs to get tax rates for small business down to globally competitive levels. "What we have to do is make America the most attractive place in the world for business, and that means our corporate tax rates, our employer tax rates, have to be competitive", Romney said. "Small business pays at the highest rate. We need to get those rates down."
Romney also advocated cutting taxes for the middle class. Although he didn't specifically define his threshold as to what he considers "rich", he said he feels "everyone in America should be rich." He didn't hesitate to knock President Barack Obama's tax increase proposals on high-earning Americans. "The president's party wants to try and take from some people and give to others. That isn't the way to lift America", Romney said.
Cain said he believes his "9-9-9 plan" for economic growth would provide the best incentive for small business owners to grow their businesses and stimulate the economy. His plan calls for throwing out the current tax code and passing a 9 percent flat corporate tax, a 9 percent flat income tax, and a new 9 percent national sales tax. "This economy is on life support, and my 9-9-9 plan is a bold solution. It eliminates, or replaces, corporate income tax, personal income tax, capital gains tax, as well as the estate tax", Cain said. He said the plan is the fairest plan because it treats all businesses the same. He also slammed Romney's tax plan, which he said is still hooked to the current tax code. "That dog won't hunt", said Cain.
Huntsman defended his proposal to subsidize natural gas companies and his record on tax credits in Utah where he offered tax credits to promote clean energy. He said his platform proposes fixing the economy through a combination of clean energy independence, tax reform, and regulatory reform. Huntsman said the natural gas industry could create 500,000 to 1 million jobs over the next five years. While he said he doesn't support subsidies, he would be willing to "get the ball rolling" on the natural gas industry, as long as there was a "rapid phaseout" of subsidies to that industry.
Bachmann and Paul offered more general answers regarding their stances on the current tax code.
When asked what percentage of the dollar a taxpayer deserves to keep, Bachmann initially responded",You should get to keep every dollar that you earn. That's your money – that's not the government's money." However, she later seemed to backtrack, saying",We have to give money back to the government so that we can run the government, but we have to have a completely different mindset."
Paul also gave a relatively general statement on taxes when he fielded a viewer question on the Tenth Amendment which states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Paul said",Government is too big in Washington, DC. It's run away. We have no controls on spending, taxes, regulation, no control in the Federal Reserve printing money." Paul then added that he believes more control of government needs to be returned to the local level.
While Johnson's answer to the Tenth Amendment question was brief, there was no mistaking his stance on taxes. "(I advocate) throwing out the entire federal tax system and replacing it with a consumption tax, the fair tax, which would absolutely reboot the American economy because it does away with the corporate tax to create tens of millions of jobs in this country", he said.
Going into the debate, a survey by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, showed Perry leading Romney, 28 percent to 22 percent if Sarah Palin gets in the race. In a sample without Palin, registered Republican voters preferred Perry over Romney, 31 percent to 22 percent.