Maine’s major U.S. Senate candidates disagree strongly over what to do about the growing national debt.

Republican Charlie Summers and Democrat Cynthia Dill mirror the positions of their parties’ members in Congress.

Summers says the answer is spending cuts, and he has signed a pledge to oppose tax increases.

Dill wants to collect more taxes from wealthy Americans and opposes cuts to social programs.

Independent Angus King says the parties will have to compromise because any realistic plan must include both spending cuts and tax increases.

The United States is spending $1 trillion a year more than it collects in tax revenue. That deficit means the government has to borrow every year to continue operating, and that has pushed the total federal debt to $16 trillion.

The debt will be one of the most urgent issues facing the new Congress.

Republicans in Congress refused last year to raise the legal limit on the size of the national debt unless Democrats agreed to spending cuts.

Democrats insisted that a deficit-reduction plan end tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year. The tax cuts were enacted under President George W. Bush.

The parties didn’t compromise on a deficit reduction plan, and instead delayed the deadline for final action until Jan. 1. If Congress and the president cannot agree on a deficit reduction plan before then, deep across-the-board spending cuts will be automatic — a process called sequestration. Many experts fear that could send the U.S. economy into another recession.

Here is what the three major candidates have been saying on the campaign trail about the federal debt and deficit:

 

THE INDEPENDENT

King has said that reducing the national debt is a top priority and a moral obligation to the next generation.

He blames partisan gridlock for Congress’ failure to contain the deficit and reduce the debt, and says the problem can be solved only with spending cuts and tax increases.

“Yes, we have to cut seriously, but we also need to have some revenues,” King said at a forum held this month by the Portland Regional Chamber.

King has cited the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s debt reduction plan as the right overall approach: spending cuts, simplified tax code, reduced tax rates and the elimination of most loopholes. He also has said he doesn’t support all of the details in that plan, such as a gasoline tax.

He supports reducing the corporate tax rate. On the other hand, he says the tax rate on capital gains such as stock sales should be increased to match tax rates on income.

King says he would support ending the Bush-era tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year, but not until the economy is stronger. He favors setting an economic trigger, such as a certain amount of job growth, as a way to remove the timing from partisan politics.

King supports a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, once the current deficit is eliminated, to keep spending in line with revenue in the future.

He has touted his experience balancing eight state budgets, as required by Maine’s Constitution, when he was governor from 1995 through 2003.

Republicans have criticized his record as governor.

King cut spending early in his tenure to balance the budget, eliminating more than 1,000 positions in state government, but he oversaw significant spending increases in later years as the economy grew and revenue increased.

Overall, King cut more taxes than he raised, producing a net tax reduction of $429 million in fiscal year 2002-03, according to Maine Revenue Services.

King left office as the economy was weakening and revenue was falling, creating a $1 billion gap between projected revenue and projected spending.

 

THE REPUBLICAN

Summers has made debt and deficit reduction a centerpiece of his campaign, saying it is the key to economic growth.

At the same time, he has pledged not to raise taxes as part of a deficit reduction plan. He says he would support reducing the deficit by cutting spending and relying on economic growth to generate more tax revenue.

“We don’t so much have a tax problem as much as we have a spending problem,” Summers said during a forum on business issues in September.

He also has said, “We should not be raising taxes on anyone in this economy.”

Summers has not outlined specific cuts, but has said he supports the proposal of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to roll back spending to 2008 levels and freeze it for five years.

Summers has distanced himself from specific parts of the Ryan budget, however, saying he doesn’t support voucherizing Medicare or cutting funding for Head Start and Pell Grants.

He supports a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At the same time, Summers wants to make the Bush-era tax cuts permanent for all Americans, including those who earn more than $250,000 a year.

He has said he supports reducing the corporate income tax rate and eliminating capital gains taxes on sales of stocks.

Summers is the only candidate in the race to have signed the no-tax-increase pledge drafted by Americans for Tax Reform, a group founded by the conservative activist and lobbyist Grover Norquist. The pledge says Summers will “oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses” and “oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

Summers’ rivals have said the refusal of Republicans in Congress to accept tax increases or close tax loopholes has blocked any deficit-reduction compromise, while he maintains that spending cuts and economic growth can balance the budget.

THE DEMOCRAT

Dill has said the debt and deficit are serious problems but do not require cuts to social programs.

Dill said the budget deficit is the result of Bush-era tax cuts, unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the collapse of Wall Street. She would focus on those factors to reduce the deficit.

“In my view, it’s not a crisis that can’t be solved,” she said. “We just need to thoughtfully and carefully address each and every element.”

Dill wants to end the Bush tax cuts for people who earn more than $250,000 a year, saying they have not produced any economic benefits.

She supports bringing U.S. troops home and cutting military spending that is not necessary for the national defense.

Dill also says she supports a tax on stock trades as a way to get Wall Street to help cover the cost of risky financial practices that triggered the recession.

Dill says she supports increasing the capital gains tax rate to match the income tax rate. She also supports the so-called Buffett Rule, a proposal to increase the income tax rate for millionaires.

Dill opposes a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution, saying it could prevent the country from borrowing in time of war or national crisis.

She says she supports the repeal of tax subsidies for big industry, such as large oil and gas companies.

Dill opposes the Simpson-Bowles Commission deficit reduction plan — a $4 trillion combination of spending cuts and tax increases — because it would balance the budget in part on the backs of seniors who rely on Medicare.

As a state senator, Dill helped lead efforts to improve collection of sales taxes from online commerce, saying collection of the taxes is fair to other retailers and would generate billions of dollars for states that are not being paid as required.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

[email protected]