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The two candidates for Virginia governor in this fall’s election offered plenty of jabs at one another as they discussed their plans for economic development and education before an audience of Northern Virginia technology leaders Thursday morning.

The Northern Virginia Technology Council hosted the event at Microsoft’s offices in Reston.

Both Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Democratic businessman Terry McAuliffe said job creation would be a central focus of their administrations if they were elected. Both discussed the need to diversify the state’s economy and bring economic development to less prosperous corners of the state.

However, they have differing approaches.

McAuliffe is focusing on improving the state’s transportation system, investing in educational initiatives that foster workforce development and supporting academic research that could lead to new businesses.

“When I talk about education, I don’t ever view it as an expense, I view it as an investment,” McAuliffe said.

Besides advancing science, technology, engineering and math education in Virginia’s schools, McAuliffe discussed building stronger partnerships between the state’s institutions of higher education and the private sector. For example, he discussed ensuring that community colleges are talking with industries in their respective regions about what programs are needed for workforce development there.

A central part of Cuccinelli’s plan for economic development is tax reform. He proposes lowering tax rates for both the highest level of individual income taxes, which he said will help small business owners, and for corporate income taxes.

“If we want entrepreneurs, if we want businesses to have more money to invest, we have to do that,” he said.

He would pay for the tax cuts by limiting spending and reviewing the state’s tax breaks, except for those aimed at education and health care.

The underlying principle of Cuccinelli’s plans for job growth is to reduce government involvement in business and let the private sector stand on its own. He is reluctant to use state funds to give incentives to specific companies to locate here or to support certain industries, for example, and said that the private sector should be more involved in determining the approach to workforce development.

“Government doesn’t get these things right as much as the private sector does,” he said.

In addition to discussing his own plans, McAuliffe also used the subject as a way to attack his opponent, characterizing Cuccinelli’s conservative positions on social issues as harmful to Virginia’s efforts to attract new businesses.

“They will not come to a state that has this social, ideological agenda,” McAuliffe said.

Cuccinelli disputed the notion that businesses consider a state’s laws on social issues when making decisions about where to locate. He noted McAuliffe’s decision to locate one of his businesses “in that bastion of tolerance, Mississippi.”

“I don’t think that the concerns you raise have risen to the level that it’s driving businesses away,” Cuccinelli told an audience member who asked about the link between business and social policy. “I am running for governor on a jobs agenda.”

He, in turn, said McAuliffe’s ties to unions will harm the state’s image and claimed that the Democrat doesn’t support Virginia’s right to work laws.

Speaking to reporters following the event, McAuliffe said: “Right to work has been the law in Virginia for 65 years and I wouldn’t change it.”

Robert Sarvis, a software engineer from Annandale who is running for governor as a Libertarian candidate, was not included in the event.

Statewide elections for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general are Nov. 5. Members of the Virginia House of Delegates are also up for election this year.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com