- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte again accused her rival of being a hypocrite about the state budget Tuesday while Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan cast Ayotte as part of a dysfunctional do-nothing Congress.

Ayotte and Hassan have been in a tight race for a seat that could help determine control of the Senate. The two faced each other at a debate focused on the economy and small businesses.

As she has previously, Ayotte argued that Hassan has been dishonest in taking credit for a state budget that lowered taxes on small businesses because Hassan vetoed an earlier version of the spending deal. She also noted that as a state senator, Hassan sponsored a bill that applied the state’s interest and dividends tax to owners of limited liability companies.

Gov. Hassan was the original sponsor of the LLC income tax on small businesses, and when it comes to the most recent business tax cuts that helped our state, she opposed them, and unfortunately even when the Legislature wanted to work on this, she took a partisan stance,” Ayotte said. “There’s a big difference in this race in terms of how we’re going to view what happens with small businesses.”

Hassan agreed that there are big differences on that front, and accused of Ayotte of working harder to protect tax breaks for oil companies and Wall Street executives than small businesses. She defended her budget veto, saying the numbers didn’t add up, but said she supported a bipartisan compromise that included the tax cuts as well as important safeguards to protect future budgets.

Questioned about a new Labor Department rule that will make more salaried workers eligible for overtime, Hassan said the rule may need adjusting but she faulted Ayotte for not taking on the issue and coming up with a solution that better serves nonprofit groups and others who have complained about it.

“This is a Congress that hasn’t been particularly functional or interested in solving problems,” she said. “If Congress had addressed this, the Labor Department may not have needed to do it.”

Hassan also said Ayotte has “done literally nothing” to help expand commuter rail from Massachusetts into southern New Hampshire, a move Hassan sees as critical to attracting young workers to the state. Ayotte responded that she would work to make that happen if the state came forward with a detailed plan that showed sustainable funding and a commitment from all the major players.

The two also were asked about newly released information about premium increases under President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law. The Department of Health and Human Services reported Monday that before taxpayer-provided subsidies, premiums for a midlevel benchmark plan will increase an average of 25 percent across the 39 states served by the federally-run online market. The average premium for such a plan in New Hampshire will go up 2 percent, one of the smallest increases in the country.

Hassan credited the state’s bipartisan plan to expand Medicaid under the health overhaul law with keeping the increases low, and noted that Ayotte has voted to repeal the expansion. Ayotte clarified that she favors repeal after a two-year transition, and said she wants to allow insurance to be sold across state lines and to expand health savings and flexible spending accounts.

“If it’s one-size-fits-all from Washington, that’s going to continue to drive up prices,” she said.

The one-hour event was organized by the Business and Industry Association, New Hampshire Public Radio and New Hampshire Business Review.

It closed with a few light-hearted questions during which the candidates revealed some common ground: both once held jobs assembling boxes and both favor peanut butter for breakfast, though Ayotte eats hers with marshmallow Fluff on toast, while Hassan pairs hers with bananas.

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