UPDATED – Rohrer wins straw poll following debate
By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
DOYLESTOWN — Five Republicans who hope to challenge U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in November said Thursday that Pennsylvania taxpayers should only have to pay a flat tax or no federal income tax at all.
With about three months until the state’s primary election April 24, most candidates are developing their own image and campaigns rather than gunning for each other.
But differences are starting to emerge as the five hopefuls divided themselves into two camps on a few issues, with some pushing farther to the right on taxation and trade while others aimed closer toward the middle, playing up their history as job creators and businessmen.
As they did during the first debate last month, the candidates generally agreed on rolling back government spending to match actual revenue, returning the federal government to the limits of the U.S. Constitution and reducing or eliminating some federal agencies or departments.
But on the question of tax policy — an issue that has taken center stage during recent GOP presidential debates as well — the distinctions were clear.
“I would like to see the elimination of the personal income tax. Frankly, I don’t think that’s even a constitutional tax,” said Sam Rohrer, a former state representative from Berks County who gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative during an 18-year run in Harrisburg.
If eliminating the income tax was not possible, Rohrer said he would support a flat tax of no more than 10 percent and would like to see corporate taxes cut in half.
Marc Scaringi, a Cumberland County lawyer, joined Rohrer in the call for the abolition of the federal income tax.
“The power to tax is the power to destroy,” Scaringi said. “I want to eliminate the federal income tax, throw out the revenue code and abolish the IRS.”
On the other side were three candidates who argued the tax code should be simplified and broadened to ensure all Americans are contributing, but stopped short of calling for the end to the income tax.
Steve Welch, an Allegheny County businessman, gave the most detailed response on the tax issue in calling for the elimination of all deductions and loopholes in the tax code, which, he said,
was the result of lobbyists and lawmakers picking winners and losers.
“We need to simplify the tax code by throwing away all the loopholes and deductions that have been carved out by special interests, which is over $1 trillion per year,” Welch said. “That is a game-changing policy that would make every American company more competitive.”
The other two candidates — Tom Smith, the former owner of several coal companies in Armstrong County, and David Christian, a retired military veteran and political adviser — said all Americans should be required to pay some taxes.
“We need a flat tax for individuals; everyone should pay taxes,” Christian said, who also called for an overhaul of the corporate tax rate and end of the inheritance tax.
“I’m a firm believer in a flat tax,” Smith said. “There are too many people on the wagon and not enough people pulling.”
Tim Burns, an Allegheny County businessman regarded as one of the top candidates in the race, was expected to debate Thursday night but canceled earlier in the day without providing a reason.
Candidate John Kensinger, a pharmacist from Bedford County, also declined to participate in the debate.
An audience of about 200 people gathered at the Moose Hall in this suburban Philadelphia town to see five of the seven candidates.
Rohrer won the straw poll that was held following the debate, with 50 of the 130 votes cast. Welch finished second with 44 votes.
The remaining 36 votes were split between Christian with 10 votes, Scaringi with 6 votes, and Smith with 5 votes. A total of 15 votes were cast for undecided.
The debate was one of the last chances for the candidates to square off before the Pennsylvania GOP will gather Jan. 28 in Hershey to decide on an official nomination.
Although the candidate to face Casey will be determined by the April 24 primary election, the statewide nomination is considered a major boon to the candidate who can secure it.
The Kitchen Table Patriots, the Bucks County Tea Party organization that hosted Thursday’s debate, is encouraging the state party to avoid any endorsements and allow an open primary process to play out.
Most in attendance said they agreed with the candidates’ views on tax policy.
“I don’t know if we could eliminate the income tax, but I would prefer to have a flat tax,” said Bernadette Repisky, of Warminster, who said she supported Welch because of his business experience. “You need to have some taxes, but I think everyone should be paying.”
Phil Schieber, of Langhorne, said he liked Rohrer best, but expected Welch to be the eventual candidate.
“I know that he is the favorite of the governor, and in this party it’s usually the power and not the people that decide,” he said.