Gubernatorial Candidate Dan Onorato Deflects Drink Tax Slam

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Allegheny County's tax on alcoholic beverages put in place under County Executive Dan Onorato hurts the restaurant and tourism industry, Auditor General Jack Wagner, one of Onorato's Democratic opponents for governor, charged yesterday.

Wagner of Beechview mentioned the tax -- 10 percent before being lowered to 7 percent -- to 300 Southwestern Pennsylvania tourism officials at a candidates' forum Downtown. He called it a "bad idea."

Onorato of Brighton Heights said he knew someone would raise the issue.

"Obviously, I was prepared for it. I use it as an example of what's wrong with Harrisburg," he said. In 2007, when the Senate was considering Act 44, a major transportation bill, Onorato said he asked senators to give the county permission to use a share of its 1 percent sales tax for mass transit.

"The Senate said 'no.' They blocked it. In Act 44, they said you can have a drink tax and a car rental tax," Onorato said. He said he faced the prospect of raising $30 million to $40 million more in property taxes for transit, and "I campaigned on not raising property taxes."

Said Wagner, whose family owns a tavern: "There is no correlation between getting a drink and paying for the Port Authority."

Wagner, Onorato, Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia and Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel are Democratic candidates for governor in the May 18 primary. Williams did not attend the forum. Also participating was Robert Allen Mansfield of Philadelphia, who is trying to get on the ballot as independent by Aug. 2.

All of the Democrats, as well as Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, attended a forum at the African American Chamber of Commerce, Downtown. Corbett faces Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County in the GOP primary. Rohrer did not attend.

At the end of the African American Chamber of Commerce forum, Williams took aim at one of Onorato's central campaign messages: that he wants to do for Pennsylvania what he did for Allegheny County.

"With all due respect to my friend Dan Onorato, I don't want to do what you're doing in Pittsburgh," Williams said. "If you see what I see when I walk out of here tonight -- that's a young man or young woman without a future, crushing poverty in almost every urban section, rural communities which look almost similarly situated -- then I don't want to repeat it. I'm sorry. I'm not painting over dirty wallpaper and pretending it looks great. It doesn't."

Onorato said after the debate that it was "probably inappropriate that he did it" with his closing statement, when no rebuttals were allowed.

"Some people have different theories on etiquette at these things. But that comes with the turf," Onorato said. …