PORTLAND — The five candidates for governor on Maine’s ballot mixed it up Monday night in a debate at the University of Southern Maine that covered education, welfare and jobs.

Right at the start, independent Shawn Moody challenged the top three candidates in the polls – Republican Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independent Eliot Cutler – to stop running negative ads for the last two weeks of the campaign.

“The people of Maine are disgusted by the TV ads and negative attacks that are going on in the politics in Maine,” he said. “I’m challenging you, Sen. Mitchell, Mayor LePage, Eliot, show some real leadership to the voters of Maine and take those ads off the TV.”

The live televised debate sponsored by WMTW-TV and the University of Southern Maine came with no clear front-runner in the race. Recent polls show LePage in the lead, followed closely by Mitchell. Cutler has polled in third, followed by Moody and independent Kevin Scott.

Mitchell tried early in Monday’s debate to get Cutler and LePage to offer more specifics about how they would cut the state budget to pay for education. She said state law requires the government to pay 55 percent of the cost of K-12 education, but the Legislature has been unable to reach that level of funding in recent years.

“Unfortunately, a recession came along,” she said. “I also want to know when we are going to stop bashing students and teachers.”

LePage responded to Mitchell by saying he would cut the Legislature’s budget and bring the focus of education back to the core curriculum.

Cutler said he never promised to get funding to 55 percent.

“Libby, you’re thinking I am making the same promises you made,” he said.

He then asked why the state didn’t fare better in a federal competition for additional money, and said the state must allow charter schools and institute performance pay for teachers.

“What you want to do is borrow, borrow, borrow, and Paul wants to cut taxes immediately, digging the hole deeper,” he said. “I’m the only fiscal conservative in the race, and I never thought that would happen.”

Mitchell cited school and jail consolidation, and state job cuts as ways she and other lawmakers have tried to reform government.

“We have reduced the cost of the Legislature,” she said. “We have reduced the cost of agencies. We have fewer employees than we had before.”

On the issue of welfare, LePage said the state must gradually reduce benefits as people become more independent.

“I believe we have to stop penalizing those who want to get ahead,” he said.

Mitchell said many people who receive benefits are elderly or disabled, and those who do work need to make higher wages so they don’t need government help.

Cutler said there are too many Department of Health and Human Services subcontractors working for the state, which drives up costs.

The capacity crowd at USM’s Hannaford Hall laughed when LePage made a joke about television ads paid for by Democrats that criticize him for saying he would consider bringing nuclear power plants back to Maine.

“I’m sure you’ve all seen my nuclear power plant bouncing around the state,” he said.

The forum included questions from TV viewers, a student at the university and those written by the television station.

When asked by a student in the audience what they would do to keep recent graduates in the state, Scott promoted his idea of a stronger agricultural economy. “I want to feed that food into our K-12 schools,” he said.

That led Cutler to say that if the student wasn’t a farmer, he had other ideas, such as merging Maine’s university and community college systems to get rid of duplication.

Mitchell said she would push for high-tech jobs, and LePage said he would give students the option to attend a 13th year of public school to get an associate’s degree.

He also wants to raise standards.

“We need to make Maine kids No. 1 in the country on education standards,” LePage said.

 

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