PORTLAND – Maine voters’ top concerns — education, energy and the economy — were the focus of a live radio gubernatorial debate featuring all five candidates on the November ballot.
The debate, called “The Maine Exchange,” was sponsored by Pierce Atwood, WGAN News Radio and MaineToday Media and held Satuyrday at the First Parish Unitarian Church on Congress Street in Portland.
Republican candidate Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott all stuck to familiar campaign themes throughout the 90-minute forum.
LePage called for Maine government to partner with private businesses and relax what he called the state’s adversarial attitude when it comes to enforcing regulations. Mitchell said the state needs to embrace the things it does well, such as building wind turbines, and continue to invest in infrastructure and education. Cutler said Maine needs strong education reforms and a more efficient government.
On education, LePage and Cutler both said they support creating charter schools; LePage, Cutler and Moody all said they support merit-based pay for teachers.
“We need to do more with less,” Moody said.
Both Cutler and Mitchell said the lagging economy will keep the state from meeting its goal of funding 55 percent of public school costs.
“We’ve got to focus on what works, like early education,” Mitchell said.
LePage said Maine needs to raise its educational standards and bring vocational learning back to center stage.
“Our standards have eroded. We’ve dumbed down our standards,” he said. “We need to find the interest level of our children and get them interested in something. We also need to broaden our curriculum base.”
All the candidates seemed to agree that Maine needs to diversify its energy sources to help keep future costs down.
Mitchell said expanding natural gas access would be an intermediate solution and that she is open to discussions aimed at striking a deal with Quebec for cheaper hydroelectricity.
Maine should look to develop its wood pellet industry, Scott said.
“We have 5.5 million acres of sustainable forests here in Maine,” he said. “We have a thriving, vibrant wood pellet industry. If you want to talk about efficiency, it’s wood pellets. That’s a chance to grow an industry here in Maine.”
Cutler again pitched his idea for creating an energy finance authority.
“It’s five people sitting around a table who have access to cheap capital,” he said.
LePage said he would support efforts to make offshore wind and tidal power commercially viable, but said they are not at that point now.
“You can’t say you are going to use wind to lower the cost of energy at the current time; it simply doesn’t work,” he said.
Candidates were also asked about Mainers’ pessimistic economic outlook.
“The programs of the last 35 years simply are not working,” LePage said. “It’s time to reverse direction. It’s time to unleash the job creators and partner with the private sector.”
Cutler said he was struck by the state’s beauty as he was flying up to Norridgewock to campaign earlier in the day, and that he has faith things can turn around.
“We need to stop administering tough rules, which we need … in a stupid way,” he said.
Mitchell, who was accused by LePage of thinking things in Maine are “hunky-dory,” said she’s not wearing rose-colored glasses.
“We have a lot of work to do,” she said.
MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at: [email protected]