By Andy Sher
NASHVILLE ? Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Bob Corker on Wednesday criticized GOP rivals who have accused him of raising taxes as mayor of Chattanooga, saying they backed tax increases while in Congress.
Mr. Corker?s comments came in a broadcast debate with fellow Republicans Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant. Conservative radio talk show host Steve Gill of Nashville?s Super Talk 99.7 WWTN moderated the free-wheeling and sometimes testy debate.
?All during this race, my opponents have talked about my record,? Mr. Corker said. ?This is my first time, I?m going to say that all of us have a record of supporting tax increases. One of the first things Van Hilleary did when he came into the Congress was to support a tax on student loans ... Ed Bryant voted for a $2.7 billion tax increase.?
Mr. Bryant replied, ?I?ll stick my record up against Bob Corker?s any day.?
Mr. Hilleary said Mr. Corker was ?shooting a BB gun at us.?
The two former congressmen, meanwhile, renewed criticisms that Mr. Corker raised Chattanooga property taxes by 48 cents, or 24 percent, soon after taking office as mayor in 2001. Mr. Corker has said the move was necessary to help close a $17.3 million shortfall he found when he became Chattanooga mayor.
?You?ll face a difficult financial situation if you get to the Senate, too, but the conservative response is to cut spending, not raise taxes,? Mr. Bryant said.
Mr. Hilleary said if the problems Mr. Corker encountered as mayor were real, he ?could have imposed a temporary tax? or delayed building projects.
?Bob said in his ad that he shrunk government and made it smaller. Well, that?s not true,? Mr. Hilleary said.
Mr. Corker said his ads are ?100 percent accurate.?
?What the ad says is I controlled spending so that property tax rates are the lowest since the 1950s,? he said. ?That is absolutely indisputable.?
Mr. Corker said when he took office as mayor, he discovered a depleted reserve account, a huge building project and major increases in pensions and health insurance.
?Houdini could not have gotten out of raising taxes with the situation I inherited,? he said.
He said he eventually cut some 250 positions and took other actions.
?My fourth budget was 1 percent higher than my first budget,? Mr. Corker said. ?And I think that?s controlling spending. When my friends were in Washington, spending went up 43 percent under their watch.?
Hilleary campaign manager Jennifer Coxe said the student loan provision Mr. Corker cited was in the massive 1995 Budget Reconciliation Act, which she said slashed overall taxes by some $245 billion.
?A provision of that bill raised fees on universities a small amount within the framework of a bill that cut taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars,? Ms. Coxe said.
Corker campaign manager Ben Mitchell said Mr. Hilleary ?supported a new tax on student loans for the purpose of balancing the budget.?
Bryant spokesman Andrew Shulman later said a Feb. 26, 2007, airline tax cited by Mr. Corker ?provided funding for essential aviation capital programs including enhancements.?
But during Wednesday?s debate, Mr. Hilleary, the lone Tennessee congressman voting against the 1997 provision, called it a tax boost that House leaders ?snuck? through.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Harold Ford Jr. disputed Mr. Corker?s contention that Chattanooga?s property tax rates are the lowest since the 1950s.
Corker campaign manager Mr. Mitchell said it is ?very noteworthy that Harold Ford feels it necessary to insert himself on this issue today after Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant gave such weak defenses for their past support for new taxes. It demonstrates how career politicians will often stick together.?
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