The five gubernatorial candidates on Maine’s ballot tried to woo business leaders Thursday during separate forums in two regions that will be critical in November’s election.

Before hundreds of chamber of commerce members in Lewiston and Bangor, the candidates sparred about topics such as the state’s business climate, its budget deficit, job creation, health care costs and welfare.

With recent polls showing Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell in a close race, independent Eliot Cutler cast himself as an alternative to both, while independents Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott said they are outsiders with needed business experience.

They first met early Thursday morning at the Ramada Conference Center in Lewiston for a breakfast and forum, hosted by the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce and attended by more than 400 people.

Asked to rate the state’s business climate on a scale of one to 10, from worst to best, Cutler started out by rating it “about two.” LePage gave it “about three”; Scott said “two to three, maybe”; and Moody said, “two to three.” Mitchell gave the state’s business climate a five.

“A lot of it is how we see ourselves, and we need to create a culture of how to make businesses grow,” said Mitchell, Maine’s Senate president.

LePage, the mayor of Waterville and general manager of the Marden’s discount chain, said the key to helping businesses is to review and relax state regulations and to lower utility costs by looking “at all forms of energy.”

LePage also said he’s not a politician or a lobbyist, but a “businessman who has served his community as mayor.”

In a swipe at Mitchell’s assertion that Maine’s economy has been hurt by a “global recession,” LePage pointed to Mitchell’s three decades of service in the Legislature. “We’ve been in a recession for 35 years; it’s time we change direction,” he said.

Cutler cited reducing energy costs, health care and changing government, while Scott said he would “reach out to corporations” to attract new businesses while “cultivating an environment of professional business analysis.”

Moody said he would work on a “small-business stimulus package,” while focusing on lowering health care costs by attracting more insurance companies to the state.

Asked how they would address an anticipated state budget deficit of at least $800 million, the candidates offered few specifics.

LePage said the state could save “hundreds of millions” by reforming welfare, while Mitchell said about $250 million could be cut by not funding schools at the 55 percent level.

Cutler assailed the recent “balanced” state budgets as not being truly balanced because costs were shifted onto towns, schools and others, and said borrowing has ballooned the state’s debt.

“We need to stop digging the hole deeper, making promises, which is what my opponents are doing. I never thought I’d be the only fiscal conservative in this race, but I am,” Cutler said, getting a chuckle from LePage.

Scott cast the other candidates as part of an establishment that has led the state to an economic “train wreck,” saying he represents the positive, innovative solution as someone who places engineers with technology firms.

“We’ve heard from the cheerleaders; I am a player and I play in the high-tech industry,” Scott said.

Moody floated his proposal to turn the Department of Health and Human Services into the department of health and human “resources,” saying people who need state assistance should be given “a lifeline, not a lifestyle.”

Asked about welfare, Moody said the focus should be on getting recipients back to work as soon as possible. He noted that he sees many tall weeds as he drives on Maine’s highways. “Somebody could pull those out,” he said.

Cutler said the state must end welfare’s “cliff” effect, in which general assistance recipients aren’t “weaned” off aid.

LePage proposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare so it’s “a transition, not a career.”

Welfare recipients could work at soup kitchens and hospitals, he said, and “we need to get them working and off the couch.”

Scott countered that 40 percent of the state’s welfare recipients are working, and that he would take a “business analysis” approach by examining people ages 18 to 45 to “find out who’s not working and why.”

None of the candidates committed to raising any specific taxes, though Cutler said an increase in the gas tax and more tolls should be considered to meet transportation needs. Mitchell said she would continue to pursue ways of lowering the state income tax, noting that voters rejected the Legislature’s proposal to do that by expanding the sales tax to additional goods and services.

“It costs money to reduce this tax,” Mitchell said.

On Thursday evening, the candidates met again to discuss business issues, before the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.

At Husson University’s Gracie Theatre, the candidates were asked to specify one tax they would cut if they could.

Mitchell, LePage and Cutler all said the income tax, while Scott said he would lower the property tax. Moody said it’s just not realistic to talk about lowering taxes while the state faces significant budget problems.

“If we can hold the line on taxes, that would be a good goal in itself,” he said.

All pledged not to raise broad-based taxes while the economy is struggling and before the budget stabilizes. LePage took it a step further, saying he would not raise fees to balance the budget.

The Bangor chamber asked the candidates whether they would resort to shutdown days if they got into a battle with the Legislature.

“A state shutdown would be a total failure for any governor,” Mitchell said. “It’s radioactive.”

LePage said he has worked with Democrats in Waterville, so he believes he knows how to handle members of the opposition party. While saying shutdown days would not be his “preferred way to operate,” he wouldn’t rule them out.

“I am never going to say never when it comes to shutdown,” he said.

The debate started on a political note, when Cutler called on voters to consider voting for the best person, not against another candidate.

“I know some of you are concerned about Paul becoming governor, so you want to vote for Libby to keep him from becoming governor,” Cutler said as he noted that some fear Mitchell so they are voting for LePage.

That prompted a response from Mitchell.

“Who will you vote for if you’re afraid of Eliot?” she asked as Scott raised his hand.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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