Tax hikes an option for Massachusetts Democratic candidates for governor

The five Democrats running for governor spoke in unison Tuesday about their eagerness to invest: in education, health care, infrastructure. Government, each took a turn telling a Harvard Kennedy School forum in Cambridge, could help revitalize the state’s economy and improve quality of life.

Then Harvard freshman Max Liebeskind, a New York native, noting that most of the discussion had revolved around the spending side of the ledger, asked them how they planned to pay for it.

Each spoke of restraining health care costs, which now devour about 40 percent of the state budget and are projected to grow. They spoke of the coffers-filling goodness of economic growth.

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And none ruled out the prospect of tax increases.

Donald Berwick, a former federal Medicare and Medicaid administrator, and Treasurer Steve Grossman made the most pointed cases for tax hikes.

Berwick proposed a “fair tax approach,” with a graduated income tax, and zeroing out tax loopholes, which he said could reap “billions.”

Grossman said he would use the governor’s bully pulpit to make a “fearless” case for more revenue in each of the state’s 40 Senate districts. Later, he told a reporter he would “potentially” seek an income tax hike on those earning above $60,000 annually.

Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security official and Globe op-ed columnist, compared tax increases to casinos, saying, “We need to have a conversation. Taxes are a way to generate revenue in hard times.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley and Joe Avellone, a biopharmaceutical executive, both steered their answers away from higher taxes.

“I think we waste a lot of money in this state – I see it,” said Coakley

The Harvard forum comes as the five Democrats head into the final stretch of party caucuses across the state, a measure of their support among grassroots activists. Grossman, all five campaigns agree, holds a clear lead among delegates awarded through the caucuses, although roughly half remain uncommitted to any candidate.

Grossman did not support Governor Deval Patrick’s $1.9 billion tax-hike proposal last year. Lawmakers whittled the request down to a $500 million increase.

On Tuesday, Grossman said he disagreed with how Patrick structured the revenue package.

“I didn’t support it because he wanted to eliminate a series of 44 exemptions in order to pay for it,” Grossman said, citing a capital gains tax on profits from home sales.

“The way the governor went about it was not a successful approach,” he said.