NASHVILLE - Democrat gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter and Republican Bill Haslam clashed over Haslam's business affairs Tuesday while Haslam accused McWherter of making costly promises he cannot deliver on during the candidates' first televised debate of the general election.
McWherter, who was trailing in a public poll last month, went on the attack from the onset in the hourlong town-hall style event held at Tennessee Tech University in Cooke-ville. He criticized the Haslam family's national chain of interstate truck stops, Pilot Travel Centers LLC.
"I think the oil business has taught him all the wrong lessons," McWherter said, referring to gas-gouging charges filed against Pilot following a 2008 hurricane. "You know, when gasoline prices are rising, that is great for the oil business. But for average Tennessee families, being able to price gouge is not a way to prosperity."
He once again raised questions about why Haslam has refused to divulge to the public what his holdings in Pilot are and how much he earns annually from the company, founded by his father.
Haslam, who is Knoxville's mayor, defended Pilot's record, saying the $5 per gallon charges occurred in only a handful of cases out of thousands of fuel shipments. The problem was later corrected with a change in computer software, he said. State charges were resolved through an out-of-court settlement with Pilot making no admission of guilt.
Haslam, who faced similar attacks in the GOP primary, told McWherter he was "surprised" about his "whole attitude toward Pilot." He noted that when McWherter's father, Ned McWherter, was governor, he would attend company meetings and "talk about how proud he was of Pilot, and how glad he was that it was a Tennessee-based company.
"I would think that as governor you would be glad to have a company that employed so many people, paid so much in taxes and gave so much back to our state," Haslam said.
The candidates also fought over how much of a revenue shortfall the next governor will face when he assumes office in January. Haslam said the next governor will have $1.5 billion less in revenue once federal stimulus funds run out.
When McWherter later said he would push to expand prekindergarten programs, Haslam said that alone would cost $200 million to $300 million.
"My idea is that we leave pre-k where it is right now," Haslam said. "And when the revenue situation changes, we will look at expanding it then."
McWherter accused Haslam of trying to "terrify everyone into thinking our budget is going to be in a huge hole once the federal stimulus runs out."
He said current Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers have "done a very responsible job" of handling the state's budget problems.
But Haslam contended higher education will take a $300 million hit once stimulus funds run out. TennCare will lose some $400 million, he said, noting those are issues to be dealt with before talking about spending additional money.
"Given that we have a $1 billion deficit, how are you going to pay for all that (new proposals) without raising taxes?" Haslam asked, then prodded McWherter further by saying "are you really unaware" of the situation.
Countered McWherter: "I think you're absolutely inaccurate saying those kinds of numbers and that kind of hole exists. ... I believe if we can get people to work in this state, we'll have revenue to move forward."
Early voting is scheduled to begin in less than a month in the Nov. 2 general election. Latest public polling shows Haslam ahead.
Meanwhile, The New York Times' FiveThirtyEight forecast model for the election, based on previous polling and what the newspaper says is demographic data, projects Tennesseans will favor Haslam on Election Day by 55 percent to 42.2 percent.
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.