FAIRFIELD — Jobs, tax reform, health care, electricity costs and education took center stage Wednesday night as the five candidates for governor outlined their solutions to economic and business problems.
They met at a forum presented by the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce and Central Maine Community Access Television. More than 200 people attended the forum, held at the Fairfield Community Center and moderated by Laurie Lachance, president of the Maine Development Foundation.
All five candidates stressed the need to create more jobs in Maine and lower the unemployment rate.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler said he, like most Mainers, is angry about the state’s economic position but said the right investments could change that.
“We can be the biggest turnaround story in America,” Cutler said. “We can be the biggest comeback state of the decade.”
Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, the Republican nominee, said he would “unleash the job creators” by speeding up permit approvals for construction projects, auditing all state agencies to reduce “red tape” regulations, conducting job-impact studies on all legislation and rules, and lowering the permit fee for starting a new business to $5.
Democratic nominee and Senate President Libby Mitchell stressed the need for government and business partnerships.
Shawn Moody, an independent candidate, suggested creating special exemptions for “micro businesses” that employ fewer than 20 people, while independent Kevin Scott blasted the state government, saying its responsibility should be to “get its fiscal house in order” and promote foreign trade.
The candidates differed on tax reform.
Mitchell said she would seek to reduce the state’s top income tax rate – 8.5 percent – by incrementally expanding sales taxes in areas other than those already rejected by voters. She also suggested making some taxes fairer, such as making the state’s tax on rental cars the same as in other states.
Moody proposed changing some state tax rules to agree with federal regulations for businesses, such as allowing revenue losses to be carried forward after a “tough year.”
Both Cutler and LePage want to cut income tax rates by 50 percent or more, and LePage said he would like the income tax eventually eliminated – though state government spending would have to be drastically reduced to accomplish that, he said. LePage also wants the state to stop taxing pensions, “because I’d rather see $100 million back in the pockets of Maine retirees.”
LePage and Mitchell sparred over reducing health care costs, with LePage blasting Maine’s Dirigo
Health program as “a great experiment that failed,” adding that the problem is that the Legislature has “designed Cadillac mandates but we have Chevy wallets.” Mitchell shot back, asking rhetorically whether “coverage for a mammogram is Cadillac.”
On energy, Cutler said he would create an energy finance authority, while renegotiating lower electricity rates with Hydro-Quebec. Scott said the key is to cut a new deal with ISO New England, the company that manages the region’s power grid.
On education, LePage said the state needs to offer more opportunities for technical and vocational training, and charter and home schooling.
“It’s unrealistic and wrong to think that every single kid in the state will go to college,” LePage said.
Mitchell said she’d like to see every school offer prekindergarten and a Jobs for Maine’s Graduates program.
Moody proposed “merit pay” for state teachers, so their salaries are tied to reviews by students, parents, administrators and a peer group.
“We need to get educators to their potential,” he said.