By ETHAN WILENSKY-LANFORD
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Steve Rowe revealed himself as the only Democratic candidate running for governor to drink Moxie and file his own taxes.

The disclosure was part of first “Great Debate” — hosted by MaineToday Media and WGME-13, Portland’s CBS affiliate — in which four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination engaged in a largely congenial discussion Wednesday night at the Irish Heritage Center in Portland.

The candiates largely stayed on message and kept their discourse civil.

Rosa Scarcelli — who has the least political experience of the four — was the only candidate to come out clearly in favor of scrapping Dirigo Health. Other candidates pointed out the state-sponsored health care plan would become less relevant as the national health care reform kicks in.

Perhaps the most pointed comments came in regard to discussion of the state’s welfare system.

Steve Rowe said there was some fraud in the system, but that there’s a misconception that Maine is an “oasis” for people seeking state assistance.

In fact, he said, fewer than 1 percent of the people receiving cash assistance from the state moved to the state from away, and most people leave the benefit rolls in less than two years.

“It’s important that we provide that assistance and help move from public assistance to having jobs,” he said. “People only stay on it for as long as they need.”

Patrick McGowan said the most jobs created nationwide in recent memory came under President Bill Clinton, and that he would look at “micro-lending” as an option to help support small businesses in Maine, which he called the backbone of the economy.

“I’m a frontline, make-government-work person,” he said, “and I’ll do that as governor.”

Senate President Libby Mitchell, of Vassalboro, said it was important to remember many on state assistance are elderly and disabled, and that while it was important to provide transitional health care and education to people who want jobs, the state also should remember its neediest in difficult economic times.

“It’s been a very tough time, and we don’t want to be mean-spiritied about people who need help,” she said.

Scarcelli, who runs a housing company for low-income residents, said changes are needed in the welfare system. “The incentives are not there right now to do better,” she said. “The systems are not structured now so that they work.”

All candidates agreed the state’s education system could be improved, and was key to stimulating the Maine economy in the long run.

The candidates were asked how much of a priority each would give to meeting the state’s legal requirement to pay 55 percent of the cost of educating kids through high school — a commitment the state has not met since it was imposed by voters.

McGowan seemed to endorse Gov. John Baldacci’s contentious push for rural school district consolidation, saying there would be 10 percent fewer K-12 students in the state in the next 10 years.

In the same period, according to Mitchell, Maine will need 40,000 more college graduates to drive its economy.

“Why is there so much remedial work after graduation?” she asked, suggesting that Maine students risk falling behind in a knowledge-based economy.

Mitchell said the state needed to “work very hard” toward meeting the 55 percent funding goal.

Rowe also said the state should try harder to meet its funding goals, but added that schools also needed to find efficiencies and innovate.

He said he would like to ease some of the mandates imposed on teachers, and encourage parents to take a more active role in their children’s learning.

“It is about increasing funding, but it isn’t all about funding,” he said. “We have to understand that not only great teachers make great students, but parents.”

Scarcelli was the only candidate to identify specific areas within education where the state could save money — by expanding class size to match, not surpass, national standards; and by changing teachers’ benefit packages, she said.

“We don’t want to cut for cutting’s sake,” she said. “We need to get more money into the classrooms.”

Scarcelli and McGowan pledged not to raise new taxes, while Rowe and Mitchell left more room to raise revenue.

Scarcelli said she would “evaluate every single state program” for possible cost savings, and work towards what she called “real tax reform” to promote business in the state.

McGowan cited his past experience balancing budgets and said he would consider combining three state agencies to save money.
Mitchell said that raising taxes would be “the very last place” she would go, and that a better idea was to focus on increasing average wages in the state.

Several times, Mitchell highlighted her role shepherding budgets and bond packages through the Senate during years of budget shortfalls.

Rowe said he expects $3 million or more in increased revenue next year as the economy rebounds, but would not rule out new taxes as a “last resort” to repair roads and other vital infrastructure.

“I am not taking a no new taxes pledge, because we might have to be creative,” he said.

Republican candidates are scheduled to debate May 7 at the Portland Expo in the second Great Debate.