The closing of the Verso paper mill – and the rhetoric and finger-pointing it inspired among the three candidates for Maine governor – will shadow the campaign for the Blaine House as it moves into a series of five critical debates beginning next week.

Four of the five debates between Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler will be held before chambers of commerce – business groups with a keen interest in the reactions and policies the three men have to offer in response to the loss of more than 500 jobs in one of Maine’s iconic manufacturing industries.

The candidates greeted the news Wednesday with words of condolence and empathy for workers at the Bucksport mill. But within 24 hours the rhetoric had shifted to criticism and finger-pointing, with LePage, Michaud and Cutler turning on each other, trading accusations like “he’s done nothing,” “incompetent” and “empty suit.”

The mill closing and candidate reactions bring into focus economic issues that already top voters’ list of concerns, but which had previously been overshadowed by other issues in the yearlong gubernatorial race.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the race,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “We’re talking about a lot of jobs in an industry that everybody knows has been in decline, but at the same time still remains a big presence in Maine’s economy. For many people, they have historical connections to the paper industry in Maine.”

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, said the closure will bring an economic focus to the campaign.


“All Mainers are concerned with the unexpected closing of the Bucksport mill,” Connors said. “I think it heightens the concern of how are we going forward to create the opportunity and jobs of the future. It also highlights some of the things within the (paper) industry that we need to keep an eye on.”

There is little that can be done to increase demand for paper, Connors said, while noting that there are areas that can be addressed to help the industry.

“Costs that affect the price of the product, the competitiveness of the product – be that energy or other things – are all things we expect to talk about and be a part of the campaign,” he said.

Kimberly Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce in Waterville, said the candidates had already received questions for Thursday’s forum, but she wouldn’t be surprised if they talked about Verso’s fate in their opening or closing statements. Either way, she said, the audience will be anxious to hear the candidates’ views on energy costs, a key issue for many businesses and a factor Verso officials cited as a reason for closing.

“The cost of energy is at the top of our list of concerns,” Lindlof said.

Verso officials have said the mill will close Dec. 1. The shuttering of the mill, the plight of its workers, and the quest for a new investor will be constant issues during the final 32 days of the campaign. Candidates will be asked to react. At least two of them, LePage and Michaud, will be participants in either setting up state and federal relief for displaced workers or the wooing of an investor.


While the campaigns may steer clear of worker relief efforts, the candidates’ early reaction to the closure suggests the announcement will be followed by hefty assignments of blame.

The swirl of accusations, claims and counterclaims dominated dueling news conferences Thursday. Michaud unveiled a “six-point plan,” but not before slamming LePage for fixating on welfare and immigration while doing little to help the struggling paper industry.

Coincidentally, one of the congressman’s action plans – the delayed transition to a newer business reimbursement tax program – highlighted the assistance that Verso Paper Corp. already has received from taxpayers. According to Maine Revenue Services, the Memphis, Tennessee-based company and its locations in Jay and Bucksport in fiscal year 2013 received $3.8 million from the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement program, the largest reimbursement in the state. The program is designed to encourage business development by reimbursing companies for the local property taxes paid for industrial equipment.

That’s not all that Verso has received in the way of taxpayer assistance. The company represents 53.8 percent of Bucksport’s total taxable property, according to the town’s 2013 financial report. It could be higher. The company benefits from a Tax Increment Financing district, which reduces its taxable property by 53.9 percent from an overall assessment of $755 million. In 2013, Verso’s tax liability was $4.5 million after the return of its TIF taxes, according to the town’s annual report.

The Town Council extended the tax break in 2010 through 2027. It also has benefited Bucksport Energy, a power plant at the mill that Verso plans to continue operating. While Bucksport Energy’s valuation increased by $7 million last year, the assessment was offset by the tax break.

Verso’s tax benefits highlight the plight of the industry. While state and local policymakers have made numerous attempts to save the mill, none prevented its closure.


That hasn’t stopped the finger-pointing.

On Thursday, LePage and Maine Republican Party officials blamed Michaud for delaying the expansion of natural gas pipeline capacity in New England. The lack of supply during the winter heating season causes electricity price spikes in the region that hurt mills like the one in Bucksport. Republicans claim that Michaud has done little to facilitate the expansion in Congress or pressure Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, to end his resistance to the expansion.

Cutler, in an interview Thursday, noted that LePage’s push for the pipeline is relatively new and followed the governor’s thus-far-futile three-year quest for cheap power from Hydro-Quebec.

“He’s been talking about Hydro Quebec for years, but not about expanding natural gas capacity of pipelines coming into New England,” Cutler said.

In 2013, the Legislature passed an omnibus energy bill designed to expand natural gas pipeline capacity and save factories an estimated $200 million a year. LePage threatened to veto the bill unless lawmakers included a provision to reopen the bidding process for an offshore wind energy grant. The Associated Press later published a story using public documents that showed the LePage administration later used the provision to derail a Norwegian company’s multimillion-dollar agreement with the state for an offshore wind project.

Cutler, meanwhile, was quick to highlight what he described as the governor’s inability to anticipate the Bucksport mill closure. While he also has criticized Michaud for not doing enough to expedite the natural gas expansion, he acknowledged that it may have only delayed Verso’s fate. Cutler talked with Verso President David Paterson on Wednesday, and said Paterson told him that the “overwhelming issue” contributing to the mill’s closure is a “the year-on-year decline in worldwide demand for paper.”


“Mr. Paterson told me that we would have shut down eventually regardless of energy costs because of the declining demand,” Cutler said.

So far, the candidates have outlined short-term strategies for Verso and the paper industry. If elected, Michaud said, he will convene a summit of stakeholders and industry leaders to discuss the future of the industry. He also said the state should implement new rules to make sure that businesses which receive tax breaks and incentives for job creation are held accountable.

Cutler hit a similar tack this week when he accused the LePage administration of “willful ignorance” for supporting a private investment firm that will receive tens of millions of dollars in state credit despite failing to save a paper mill in East Millinocket and a former mill in Millinocket. Cutler described the deal as a “massive scandal.” On Thursday, he said Verso shouldn’t be an excuse to use economic development tools “in bad ways.”

The fallout from the Verso closure could dominate what remains of the campaign.

Brewer, with the University of Maine, said the issue could break a number of ways. LePage, who has touted the state’s declining jobless rate, could benefit if he’s able to find a buyer and keep the mill open. If not, Michaud and Cutler can keep reminding voters that Maine still lags the region in economic recovery and that its median wage is the lowest in New England.

“It will be an issue going forward in this campaign cycle,” he said. “What I’m not confident at all in saying is how exactly it’s going to play out.”

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