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Corporate incentives, jobs, minimum wage in spotlight as Christie, Buono debate

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State Sen. Barbara Buono, left, debated Governor Chris Christie for the last time last night. Polls are opened today for the special election to replace the late N.J. Senator Frank Lautenberg.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, left, debated Governor Chris Christie for the last time last night. Polls are opened today for the special election to replace the late N.J. Senator Frank Lautenberg. - (NJBIZ)

In their second and final gubernatorial debate Tuesday night at Montclair State University, Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. Barbara Buono sparred over everything from corporate tax subsidies to convenience store preferences.

Both candidates were noticeably more aggressive during the 90-minute debate than in their first encounter last week — particularly as it concerned the economy.

Repeating a sentiment expressed during their first debate, Buono railed against the Christie administration's proliferation of corporate tax credits and incentives, saying more attention needs to be devoted to helping small businesses rather than major corporations. She added that there is "no oversight and no accountability" in how the corporate tax credits are administered.

"They're the ones that are crying out for help," Buono said of small businesses.

Buono also criticized Christie for New Jersey's unemployment levels, again pointing to the need to refocus the state's economy around small businesses.

"We are lagging the nation in economic growth," Buono said.

But Christie said he's proud of his economic record, especially given the fiscal situation he inherited from Jon Corzine. Christie said that under his tenure, the state has seen its best year of private sector job growth since 2000.

"We're making progress," Christie said.

Christie also said that if elected, he'd continue to work on the state's regulatory environment, which he described as "better now than it was, but still too difficult."

Another focus area, Christie said, would be income tax reform.

"We need to make New Jersey more affordable from an income tax level, in particular," Christie said.

Raising minimum wage

Predictably, the proposal to increase the minimum wage was a flash point.

Christie said he supported a hike that would be phased in over a three-year period without automatic increases, so businesses could better plan for it. But Buono questioned the basis for even debating an increase, saying in a state with such a high cost of living, a higher minimum wage is essential.

Business groups have warned such an increase — a ballot question seeks to tie future hikes to the consumer price index — would prevent companies from growing and adding jobs.

Fielding a question on economic conditions in Camden, Christie heralded the state's recently passed incentives bill as a potential game-changer for business in the city and said he was proud of the focus his administration has placed on South Jersey.

RELATED: VIDEOS: 2013 New Jersey debate roundup

"The new Economic Opportunity Act gives tremendous opportunities in a city like Camden for them to grow and attract more businesses both small and large there," Christie said.

But Buono said Christie is not capable of focusing on the needs of working class New Jerseyans in cities such as Camden, instead only motivated by "the needs of the wealthy and the well-heeled." She also accused Christie of delaying and blocking affordable housing, citing his administration's fight against COAH.

Buono also criticized Christie on his decision to not create a state-run health exchange for New Jersey's implementation of the Affordable Care Act. She said thousands were left on the table by opting to go with the federal exchange.

"This is a lost opportunity," Buono said of the exchanges.

The debate was not without its fair share of repackaged questions from the candidates' first quarrel. Christie again answered indecisively on his ambitions of a 2016 presidential run, saying that he has "no idea what the next four years are going to bring."

Before the night was over, they also sparred over issues like same-sex marriage, Sandy relief and gun control.

Even during a series of light-hearted questions that included an inquiry into the candidates' preferences on New Jersey convenience stores, Christie and Buono argued over their differences.

"I'm a Wawa guy," Christie said, to which Buono countered with, "7-Eleven."

Election Day is Nov. 5.

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Andrew George

Andrew George

Andrew George covers the Statehouse from NJBIZ's Trenton bureau. Born and raised in N.J., Andrew has also spent time as a reporter in D.C., Texas and Pa. His email is andrewg@njbiz.com and he is @AndrGeorge on Twitter.

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