Gov. Deval Patrick and Republican challenger Charles Baker clashed sharply Friday about the state’s business climate and their approach to improving it.
Patrick said his opponent doesn’t care about the humanity of the workforce, while Baker countered the Democratic incumbent lacks the focus and fortitude to make the policy changes employers need to boost hiring.
The intense exchange previewed themes likely to dominate the political landscape in September, when summer vacations are over and the voting public focuses on the approaching fall elections.
Patrick, who also faces challenges from Independent Timothy Cahill and Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein, ignited the debate during an interview with The Associated Press.
In it, he excoriated Baker for proposing employees work 20 weeks — instead of the current 15 — to qualify for unemployment benefits in Massachusetts. At least 27 states require an equivalent of at least 19 weeks or more.
The governor said he had considered the same idea but abandoned it after learning it would have cost more than 12,000 people their benefits in 2009.
“It’s disappointing to see a proposal like this among some that are really quite thoughtful, because I think it reflects a lack of appreciation that there are human beings behind these ideas,” Patrick said, echoing the themes in a statement his campaign issued after Baker made the proposal last Thursday during a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
“I think that for Charlie, a lot of these proposals are academic and he is not seeing or thinking about the lives behind some of these ideas,” the governor added. “I think that’s a difference: Some people think that’s the way you lead. I don’t.”
Baker noted 100,000 more people are out of work now than when Patrick took office in 2007, increasing the state’s number of unemployed to more than 300,000. He said he felt special empathy for them.
“This race is very personal to me, and more than anything, I want to get people back to work,” Baker said. “And we’re not going to get people back to work by pussyfooting around Beacon Hill and not taking on the tough, so-called sacred cows that haven’t been touched.”
Baker has accused Patrick of prematurely tapping the state’s rainy-day fund, but he said any of that money he withdrew, as well as the federal economic stimulus money the state received, should have been used as a cushion while restructuring state government and the Massachusetts business code for operation in a post-recession era.
In particular, he called for cutting state spending, overhauling the public employee pension system, curbing health care cost growth and allowing cities and towns to join the state’s group insurance pool.
“Governor Patrick’s record on taxes, regulation and spending have made what was a bad situation anyway a lot worse. He’s created an ongoing economic calamity for Massachusetts,” said Baker, who was budget chief during the Weld and Cellucci administrations.
During his Chamber speech, Baker proposed cutting the state’s business tax rate from 8.75 percent to 5 percent. He also called for reducing the sales and income taxes to 5 percent each.
Patrick said the state cannot afford the estimated $2 billion in lost revenue.
“(The proposals) all sound good on their surface, but that’s $2 billion of services that have to be cut, and until we start having a serious conversation about what those are, these proposals can’t be taken very seriously,” the governor said.
As to Baker’s broader criticism about the growth of unemployment while he has been governor, Patrick chuckled and said: “I think sometimes I listen to Charlie and I get the sense that the only one who hasn’t noticed there’s been an economic global collapse is him.”
The Republican noted he had previously outlined a “Baker’s Dozen” of 13 reform proposals he said would save the state more than $1 billion. They include ending union control over some public contracts, as well as overhauling every state agency and department.
Baker also grew animated as he discussed the unemployed people he meets out on the stump. He said many of them are pessimistic about landing a new job even by the end of the year.
“Many of them have given up hope, and they’re not going to get it from a guy who is not serious about creating a competitive business climate for investment and job growth,” Baker said.