AUGUSTA – Hunting and fishing issues took center stage Friday afternoon when the five gubernatorial candidates talked about fish hatcheries, land conservation and other topics.

George Smith and Harry Vanderweide, hosts of the “Wildfire” television show in Maine, moderated the roundtable discussion.

Four of the five candidates said they would support a tax credit for private entities that improve fishing opportunities — independent Eliot Cutler said he would not make promises before he’s elected.

“I haven’t made a single promise to any group in the state of Maine,” he said.

That prompted Democrat Libby Mitchell to say there’s a difference between promises and sharing a vision for how you would govern.

“I have not gone around promising anything to anybody,” she said. “People expect a governor to stand up and say what they will do.”

Republican Paul LePage said his priorities are forestry, farming and fishing.

“It’s not necessarily making promises, it’s making priorities,” he said.

Independent Kevin Scott said Cutler was taking a “cop out” by saying he couldn’t promise to invest more money in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

And independent Shawn Moody said there’s more to some of these decisions than money.

“It’s beyond dollars,” he said. “It’s our heritage. It’s generational.”

The debate came after new poll numbers suggest Mitchell and LePage are in a dead heat for the lead in the race, with Cutler in third, Moody in fourth and Scott fifth.

All candidates but LePage said they would support a bond on the November ballot that calls for the state to borrow $9.75 million for the Land for Maine’s Future program. LePage said he supports only the $5 million bond for new dental services in Maine.

“All other bond issues are putting shackles on the next governor,” he said.

Mitchell said she not only supports the current bonds, but would propose more land bonds to support the program if she’s elected.

While Smith and Vanderweide tried to keep the conversation focused on issues of interest to sportsmen, the candidates often strayed to other topics, including tax reform and school consolidation.

During a discussion of privatization — with all candidates saying they either support privatizing fish hatcheries or at least studying the idea — LePage emphasized his anti-government platform.

“The only program I’ve ever seen government do right is the G.I. Bill,” he said.

Cutler said he can think of other government successes, but that the state should consider whether the services it provides are necessary and whether some things can be done better and more efficiently by the private sector.

The field agreed that the state needs to take a more active role in protecting deer yards to help the herd in northern Maine make a comeback. They talked about the need to balance landowner rights with public access and whether they would want to see the state’s natural resource agencies merged.

Scott said wardens need to play a bigger role in policing access to private property.

“There needs to be some relationship-building with the landowners,” he said.

Mitchell said she didn’t support merging natural resource agencies as Senate president and still doesn’t. Cutler said while it makes sense to merge some government entities, he wouldn’t support the agency mergers, either.

LePage and Scott said they see a bigger role for counties.

As mayor of Waterville, LePage said he’s seen several examples of failed consolidation efforts from the state, including school district consolidation, emergency communications and corrections.

“We either have to allow county governments to be a catalyst for regionalization or we have to get rid of it,” he said.

LePage said environmental regulations have cost the state money.

“In cleaning up the rivers, we gave up an enormous amount of investment from paper companies in Maine,” he said.

Mitchell said the paper companies have become more efficient and that foreign competition has eroded jobs.

“The businesses that are coming along need clean air and clean water,” she said. “We would never turn our back on those environmental regulations.”

The debate will be broadcast on Time Warner Cable starting Oct. 16 and will also be available online at www.wildfiremaine.tv.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@centralmaine.com