AUGUSTA — Democrats running for governor talked about education funding, taxes and health care Thursday at a forum sponsored by the Kennebec County Democratic Committee and the Central Maine Labor Council.

Patrick McGowan, Steve Rowe, Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell and write-in Donna Dion explained their vision for the state as they worked to win the support of the crowd of about 50 gathered at an Augusta union hall.

One audience member said his property taxes are going up this year because of state cuts to education. He wanted to know what the candidates would do to help senior citizens who can no longer afford their taxes.

Rowe, a former attorney general, said part of the answer lies in reducing costs in other areas so more money is available for K-12 education. But he didn’t rule out the possibility of raising taxes if necessary.

“I’m not taking a no-new-taxes pledge,” he said. “I don’t have any plan to raise any broad-based taxes. I don’t think any of us do. But it has to be an option.”

McGowan, who stepped down as head of the state’s conservation agency to run for governor, said he would look at eliminating some of the exemptions in the state’s tax code to bring in additional revenue. He said he’d want to consider raising taxes on nonresidents.

“My pledge to you is not to take another penny out of a Maine resident’s pocket to pay for taxes,” he said.

Mitchell said the state has two programs in place — the Homestead Exemption and the circuit breaker — to try to help residents better afford their taxes. When it comes to education funding, she said taxpayers want the state to chip in 55 percent of the cost but it’s not clear where that money is supposed to be found.

“We also have to deal with the painful reality of, can we afford the same number of administrators when the number of students is going down?” she said.

Dion, a former Biddeford mayor, said state and federal mandates have driven up the cost of education.

“The structure is extremely important,” she said. “We need to look at, what have we mandated?”

On June 8, five Democrats — Rowe, Mitchell, McGowan, Rosa Scarcelli and John Richardson, with Dion running as a Democratic write-in.

On the Republican side, seven men are vying for the nomination: Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, Bruce Poliquin, Les Otten, Steve Abbott, Bill Beardsley, Matt Jacobson and Sen. Peter Mills.

Unenrolled candidates unenrolled candidates who have until June 1 to get 4,000 signatures to make the November ballot include Eliot Cutler, John Whitcomb and Kevin Scott.

When it comes to health care, Rowe said he believes the nation will have a single-payer system — eventually.

“I believe we’ve got to move toward a single-payer system,” he said. “You want to talk about what’s holding back business in Maine? It’s health care.”

Mitchell said although the state’s Dirigo Health program has been “much maligned,” she hears from people who value the insurance they get through the public-private partnership.

She said some form of public option or insurance exchanges need to be put in place to extend coverage to more people.

“We have to get the cost down,” she said.

McGowan said he supported a single-payer health care system as far back as 1990 when he ran for Congress. Now that there’s a new federal law, he believes competition will help lower costs.

“Let’s let the insurance companies bid on it and deliver it at a cost that’s effective,” he said.

Dion said she has relatives in Canada who have benefited from that country’s nationalized health care system.

She said the exchange system that’s part of the new U.S. health care law will help.

“We could drive ourselves in the direction of a single payer,” she said.

Susan Cover — 620-7015

[email protected]

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