September 23, 2010

Issues Forum: Four hopefuls outline their plans on ways to stimulate businesses in Maine

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

SACO - Four of the candidates for governor on the Nov. 2 ballot shared their plans for their first 100 days in office Wednesday at a forum sponsored by the Biddeford-Saco Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Democrat Libby Mitchell said she would merge the State Planning Office and the Department of Economic and Community Development to create a new office that would focus on helping businesses succeed.

"There's no time to waste," said Mitchell, the Senate president. "Maine people are anxious to get back to work."

Republican Paul LePage, the mayor of Waterville, said he would create an "E-Z Pass" system for businesses to help them get started, institute a 90-day review process for project applications and get rid of the state's Dirigo health system.

"Dirigo has been a disaster," he said. "It needs to go away."

Independent Eliot Cutler said he would create an "energy finance authority" to focus on lowering energy costs, institute a program that would give everyone a "medical home" and work to balance important environmental regulations with the needs of businesses.

"The first 100 days are not going to be a honeymoon," he said.

Independent Shawn Moody, founder of a chain of auto body shops, said he would "change the attitude" in Augusta.

"It's no secret Maine is not a business-friendly state and hasn't been for some time," he said.

Independent Kevin Scott of Andover did not attend the forum.

The candidates gathered at one end of a large gymnasium in Saco during a business expo sponsored by the chamber. About 80 business owners and employees sat on metal bleachers or stood as the candidates explained their positions.

The unusual setting led Cutler to quip that it felt a little like the candidates were "halftime entertainment at a basketball game."

The forum focused mostly on issues that are important to businesses, such as taxes, the cost of electricity, and leadership qualities. The candidates were civil, if not friendly.

At one point, LePage, the front-runner, and Mitchell, who is in second place according to recent polls, traded barbs over a commercial that the Democratic Governors Association has been running that criticizes LePage for his support of nuclear power.

In response to LePage's call for a 90-day review process, Mitchell said that could result in "a nuclear power plant on Popham Beach. If you didn't get the right answer in 90 days, anything goes."

A few questions later, LePage came back to the topic by saying that his administration would study all options for lowering the cost of energy.

"We're going to convince Mainers that 'not in my backyard' isn't going to solve the problem," he said.

He then turned to Mitchell and said, "Nuclear power plant at Popham Beach? Is that where it was, Libby?"

She replied: "I think it was Waterville."

On the issue of taxes, the candidates were asked about the recent tax reform plan passed by Democrats but rejected by voters in June. The plan would have lowered the income tax but extended the sales tax to more than 100 additional services.

Cutler said a major overhaul of the tax system is necessary, but it can't happen until the state budget gap is closed.

"We've got to get to a system that's broad and flat and fair," he said.

LePage said Democrats tried to sell the proposal as a tax cut.

"It was everything but a tax reduction," he said. "You didn't have to be an economist to realize they were blowing smoke."

He called for reform of the state's pension system, saying future state employees "cannot and will not live under the same retirement system" that current state workers enjoy.

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