DARTMOUTH — The leading candidates for governor, who remain locked in a virtual dead heat during the home stretch of the campaign, clashed Friday over the Big Dig, economic development, and tax policy during a debate at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Republican Charlie Baker and Democrat Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, squared off in a packed auditorium during the hour-long forum, which was sponsored by the SouthCoast Alliance.
Coakley fired the opening salvo, telling the crowd that she supports the South Coast Rail project, but money for major initiatives has been limited in the wake of “funding on the Big Dig, which my Republican opponent was engaged in.”
She referred to Baker’s tenure as the state’s budget chief during the mid-1990s, when he played a key role in developing a financing plan to sustain the infamous construction project.
The South Coast project would extend the existing rail line that ends in Stoughton southward, along inactive rail beds and a proposed 1.5-mile trestle over the Hockomock Swamp in Easton and Raynham. South of Taunton, the route would split, with a main branch heading to New Bedford and a secondary branch to Fall River, both using active freight tracks.
Baker fired back at Coakley, stating that the project began when he was in college and continued after he left the state Executive Office of Administration and Finance.
And, Baker said, his financing plan was a template that Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, used for an ambitious bridge repair project of his own.
But Coakley kept up the attack, noting that Baker did not support the South Coast Rail during his prior run for governor in 2010, and that while he backs the initiative now, he has not said how he will pay for it.
Turning to the gas tax issue, Coakley said that she opposes a ballot question that would end the practice of tying the gas tax to inflation, in part because such indexing will provide much-needed funds for transit projects.
Baker pounced, arguing that tying the gas tax to inflation allows for an automatic annual tax increase, which lawmakers do not have to vote on and explain to their constituents.
“The attorney general thinks we should just raise taxes forever” to pay for the rail project, he said.
Both candidates sought to portray themselves as sensitive to the concerns in the region, which has struggled in recent years with high unemployment, underperforming school districts, and an opiate crisis.
But the sparing continued throughout the gubernatorial forum.
After hearing Baker pledge to increase local aid to cities and towns when tax revenues increase, as well as develop vacant state-owned land, Coakley pointed to his unwillingness to raise taxes and his support for business tax breaks, which he concedes would cost the state up to $300 million.
“That sounds like a little bit of fuzzy math to me,” she said.
Baker responded coolly.
“I sometimes wonder if the attorney general has read my economic development plan,” he said before listing several proposals, including boosting the earned income tax credit for low-wage workers and easing regulatory burdens on small businesses.
Coakley said employers are less concerned about the regulatory climate and more focused on finding workers with the necessary skills, which she mentioned as part of her plan to bolster the state’s two- and four-year colleges, reduce student debt, and provide career training.
She also made repeated references to her efforts to “stand up for people when Wall Street was taking their homes.”
The Globe reported earlier this week that when Coakley sued two federal agencies for refusing to sell homes in foreclosure to nonprofit groups that want to return them to the original owners, she did not disclose that a nonprofit run by her campaign finance co-chair buys and sells distressed properties in that manner.
Coakley and her campaign staff have said the lawsuit was part of her longtime push to get lenders to modify the terms of loans to help homeowners who have fallen behind on payments avoid foreclosure.
Baker, who has faced similar scrutiny about a deal between his Cambridge-based venture capital firm and the New Jersey pension fund, steered clear of the foreclosure lawsuit during Friday’s debate.
But when he criticized Coakley earlier in the week over the matter, she accused him of backing Wall Street banks.
The remaining candidates for governor are independents Scott Lively, Jeff McCormick, and Evan Falchuk. Voters go to the polls on Nov. 4.
Andrea Estes, Michael Levenson, and Jim O’Sullivan of the Globe staff and Globe Correspondent John Laidler contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.