FREEPORT — Two candidates for governor sparred over how they would run the state during a forum Thursday that focused on Maine’s tourism economy.
The forum at the Harraseeket Inn was hosted by the Maine Hospitality and Tourism Alliance. It covered topics that are important to the industry, including the state sales tax, passenger rail infrastructure, support for Maine restaurants, and the proposal for a casino in Oxford County.
Only Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler attended. Independent candidates Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott were not invited, and Democrat Libby Mitchell has pulled out of several forums to which all five candidates were not invited.
The forums before Labor Day were relatively tame, but Cutler went after LePage on Thursday, starting with his opening statement.
“I’ve heard my friend Paul LePage say at two recent forums that he’s disappointed that tourism’s our number one industry. He said that’s unfortunate,” Cutler said in his opening. “Disappointed? Unfortunate? Do you think, Paul, that the town of Freeport or the 161 employees that work right here at the Harraseeket — 102 of them full time — are disappointed with the inn’s $4 million payroll?”
Later, LePage said it is “easy for someone to take things out of context.”
“So let me tell you what I was trying to say last week, and maybe I didn’t say it very well. Tourism right now is the number one industry in the state. I said I would love to see tourism keep growing and get more prosperous, and I would like to see the forest products, agriculture and fishing go back to where they were, which would put the tourist industry number four again. That means Maine people would be earning good wages, good prosperous wages, so they can enjoy the beauty of Maine and the tourism Maine has to offer, not just out-of-staters.”
The candidates were asked whether they favor raising the state’s lodging tax, or allowing communities to add local option taxes.
Cutler said that after spending is cut in state government, Maine will need to revamp its entire tax structure. But, he said, it wouldn’t be done “on the back of any particular industry, including this one.”
If the state ever has to raise meals and lodging taxes, Cutler said, he would make sure the money goes to promote tourism and pave roads.
LePage said he wouldn’t favor raising any taxes, and that his record as mayor of Waterville is a template.
“I reduced taxes, I reduced spending, we streamlined the organization, we cross-trained our employees and we lowered our taxes 13 percent,” LePage said. “We didn’t cut services. We didn’t have to. We just went after the fat.”
Late in the debate, Cutler questioned LePage’s work in Waterville.
“Waterville’s property taxes have gone down,” he said. “They’ve gone down less than Windham’s, less than Biddeford’s, less than Bangor’s. Fee revenue has gone up 86 percent — doesn’t matter where it came from, it went up 86 percent,” Cutler said. “Students in Waterville schools are dropping out of school at twice the rate of students in the state of Maine.”
“Now that’s inventing — that is absolutely incorrect,” said LePage.
“Well, the Department of Education of the state of Maine is inventing,” Cutler replied.
“They are inventing” LePage said. “Waterville is not dropping out at a higher rate than the state average.”
Cutler said the graduation rate was 78.9 percent statewide in 2009, and it was 73.8 percent in Waterville.
Cutler also criticized LePage for saying recently that he would tell President Obama to stay out of Maine, and took offense at the Waterville mayor’s use of the word “Gestapo” to describe an office he would create in state government to monitor the regulatory work of agencies.
Cutler, who is Jewish, noted that Thursday was Rosh Hashanah.
There were some light moments during the forum. At one point, Cutler suggested that Mitchell’s absence meant “she doesn’t like to be with me and Paul.”
“Can you blame her?” LePage quipped.
On the question of a casino in Oxford County, neither candidate said he supported it. LePage said he will accept the casino if voters approve it in November. “The will of the people, I will honor,” he said.
Cutler said a casino would be inconsistent with Maine’s image, and would essentially send profits out of the state.
Neither candidate expressed support for subsidizing passenger rail in Maine, although LePage joked that he would “only if it goes to Waterville.”
Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: