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Journal Tribune
Updated November 9, 2019
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Education, economy grab attention at governor candidates’ forum

Maine candidates for governor, from left, Alan Caron, Terry Hayes, Janet Mills and Shawn Moody, participate in at the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Eggs & Issues forum at Holiday Inn by the Bay on Wednesday. BEN MCCANNA/Portland Press Herald

Education and the economy dominated a forum Wednesday with the four candidates for governor, the first time all appeared together in weeks.

At the Portland Regional Chamber event, Republican Shawn Moody pushed backed against an ad campaign criticizing him for saying that public schools are “overfunded.”

Moody said he thinks schools need to “operate efficiently,” and that he wants to expand career and technical education and help teachers he described as overworked and burdened by too much bureaucracy.

“They need help and I’m coming to the rescue,” Moody said of the teachers. The unions, he said, are “scared to death” an outsider can do “the real reform that K-12 desperately needs.”

Independent Terry Hayes, the state treasurer, said she’d focus on investing in teaching and learning, with social services for students delivered outside of school hours so that instructional time isn’t lost.

Democrat Janet Mills, Moody, Hayes and Alan Caron, another independent, last appeared together at a forum in Lewiston on September 10.

The four are vying to replace Gov. Paul LePage, who is termed out.

The four-way race is being closely watched since LePage won twice with less than 50 percent of the vote. In his first win, independent candidate Eliot Cutler received 36 percent of the vote, and 8 percent the second time. The most recent independent public polling on the race, taken in early August, found Mills, the attorney general, and small business owner Moody tied at 39 percent each, while Hayes and Caron trailed at 4 percent and 3 percent, respectively, and 16 percent undecided.

Caron has pledged to decide in mid-October whether to stay in the race, withdrawing if he did not think he could win.

Although the Chamber event was billed as a debate, where candidates interact with each other and rebut the others’ positions, it was a forum, with each candidate answering questions from the moderator.

The four meet again Wednesday night at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m. for an event hosted by WLOB radio, and more forums and debates are planned before Election Day.

Debates can play an outsized role in Maine, where 33 percent of voters are registered as Democrats, 27 percent as Republicans, 35 percent as unenrolled, 4 percent as Greens and 0.5 percent as Libertarians.

None of the candidates has emphasized party politics, which has been fundamental to LePage’s approach to governing. His bombastic style, which played well to his base, frequently turned on vilification of Democrats and unions and liberal causes.

A few times in Wednesday’s forum, Mills took jabs at LePage, accusing him of cycling through too many education commissionersand “sitting” on bonds for projects ranging from highway repairs to senior housing.

“You won’t see me doing that,” Mills said.

The candidates were asked about Medicaid expansion, which Maine voters approved in 2017, but LePage has refused to implement , citing budgetary concerns.

Moody echoed LePage’s position that expansion is the law, and the challenge is to “fund this responsibly and sustainably.”

The other candidates support expansion, with Mills saying it was particularly important in light of the opioid crisis and other major health crises: “How can you not afford to do Medicaid expansion?” she said. “Let’s not just treat them in the emergency room or find them in the morgue.”

On deteriorating infrastructure, Moody said he would continue to build up the state’s rainy day fund in order to “spend our money smarter” by waiting to tackle infrastructure work in slower economic times when material prices decline and workers are easier to find.

Mills said she supports Question 3 on November’s ballot, which would provide $105 million in bonds for roads, bridges and ports, and would prioritize expanding broadband and internet connectivity.

Caron said he would shift away from trying to attract big employers from elsewhere and would instead invest in local entrepreneurs.

Each candidate has a plan for addressing the opioid crisisin Maine, where drug overdose deaths have killed more than 750 people in the last two years. Mills said 535 people were saved by the Narcan distributed by her office to police statewide, and she would back healthcare coverage for treatment. Moody said he supported recovery efforts, but wanted data-driven solutions so money goes to programs with demonstrated results. Caron said the crisis stemmed from “a hopelessness that has taken root”, and that improving the economy would help. Hayes said she would focus on ending the stigma around addiction, and invest funding into treatment programs.

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