Local candidates weigh in on economy, education
Belfast — Eleven of the 12 candidates hoping to represent Waldo County in Augusta gathered in Belfast Friday morning, Sept. 21, and discussed several issues, chief among them being the economy.
The Waldo County Leadership Circle organized the candidates' forum, which took place at the Waldo County General Hospital Education Center.
Local attorney Lee Woodward moderated the two-hour question-and-answer session, which included pre-submitted questions from the leadership circle as well as questions from members of the audience.
Present at Friday's debate were House District 41 candidates James Gillway (R-Searsport) and Meredith Ares (D-Searsport); House District 42 candidates Leo LaChance (R-Winterport) and Joseph Brooks (U-Winterport); House District 43 candidates Erin Herbig (D-Belfast) and Donna Hopkins (R-Belmont), House District 44 candidates Jethro Pease (R-Morrill) and Lloyd Chase (D-Liberty); House District 45 candidates Ryan Harmon (R-Palermo) and Brian Jones (D-Freedom) and Senate District 23 candidate Mike Thibodeau (R-Winterport). Thibodeau's opponent, Chip Curry (D-Belfast) was not in attendance Friday.
The majority of Friday's discussion came back to job creation and the state of Maine's economy, with many of the candidates noting how expanding all types of educational opportunities for both students and Maine's workforce directly relates to addressing the state's economic needs.
Jobs and the economy
Woodward asked candidates what they thought was the most important issue in the state and how they would work to address it.
“There’s only one issue before us, and that’s jobs,” said Thibodeau. “If you’ve got some other agenda, I think you’re missing the mark.”
Thibodeau said he’d work to lower energy costs by supporting bills aimed at building out natural gas pipelines to allow more locals and businesspeople to take advantage of lower-cost options.
Harmon said he supported a movement to eliminate the state income tax for those making less than $32,000 annually because he recognized that families, farms and small businesses are struggling. It was one way Harmon said the state could help small businesses to grow and eventually create more jobs.
“Politicians cannot create jobs, unless it’s government jobs,” said Harmon.
Jones said that in order for Maine to be successful, every child should be afforded the best education possible and all Maine people should have access to health care. Jones also said most smaller communities in his district would not likely see large call centers setting up shop in town and locals would instead need support in building local economies, “from the ground up.”
“Unemployment is up and the median income is down,” he said. “What we’re doing now is not working.”
Chase agreed that there is a need to create a more friendly environment for small-business growth, but also called attention to the growing problem of prescription drug abuse and the crimes that have resulted from the problem.
“Pharmacy robberies are double what they were last year, and it’s only September,” he said. “We need to work with the court system and law enforcement to develop a better system for rehabilitation and education.”
Pease said he felt there were four things the state should do to foster a better business climate – lower energy costs, remove prohibitive rules and regulations that would not adversely impact the environment, provide more educational opportunities for young people and create a more competitive tax structure.
“Businesses need to be able to compete,” he said.
Herbig said maintaining Maine’s quality of place is imperative to continued economic growth because “people in the workforce want to live here.” In order to do that, the state needs to focus on providing opportunities for workers to obtain training in the heritage industries, such as boat-building and farming. By doing so, she said, Maine would see increasing revenues because more business means more tax money.
Brooks said he chose to run as an unenrolled candidate instead of as a Democrat because he felt politicians in the major parties at the state and federal levels have not been working well together in recent years. He said he’d work to create a caucus of representatives who are committed to crossing the aisle in the name of moving Maine forward. Supporting all forms of education is critical to economic growth, Brooks said, and he criticized the state for what he characterized as not honoring the will of the voters.
“One thing you don’t do is refuse to put out bonds that were approved by the people,” he said.
Brooks’ opponent, LaChance, said he felt the state should work toward regaining the trust of Maine's people.
“We need to restore the confidence of the voters,” he said. “Through examinations of the Legislature and the voters, too, we need to find out why we lost that confidence.”
LaChance said he’d like to see the Legislature reduced to at least half its current size, as did Pease and Chase, though Chase said he harbored concerns that doing so might adversely impact constituent services.
Gillway said as part of the state transportation committee, he worked to increase the number of roads the state paves each year to 600, and supported the move to add $60 million more toward the cost of subsidizing public schools. Improving more roads creates jobs in both the short and long term, he said, and supporting education will help Maine keep what Gillway called “our most valuable resource.”
“That’s our kids,” he said.
Ares said legislators should refrain from adhering strictly to the philosophies of their parties and rely more heavily on science and research provided in reports like “Measures of Growth,” a study from the state chamber of commerce to make decisions for the future of Maine.
“Maine is the only state in New England whose economy is shrinking,” she said, noting that using scientific data might produce better ideas for improving life in Maine.
Crossing the aisle
Woodward asked candidates how each of them would make greater efforts to cross party lines and work with politicians of the opposite party.
Gillway said in his experience, the party divide is a greater problem in Washington than it is in Augusta.
“All the heavy lifting and all the hard work is done in the committees, and there we sit side by side,” he said.
Ares said that she had researched the voting records of Maine legislators and found that most votes appeared to be split along party lines.
“The way I would overcome this is simply by listening,” she said.
Hopkins took a similar position, stating that the wishes of the people would always be what drove her to make decisions.
“I’m a good listener, and I will listen,” she said.
Herbig said the biggest factor in creating an environment that is conducive to good decision-making in Augusta is the voters, because they decide who will represent them.
“We definitely need to elect more people who will make decisions based on the information in front of them,” she said.
Keeping the promise to Maine public schools
Candidates also weighed in on whether the state should make greater efforts to fund the public school system at 55 percent, a level of funding that voters directed the state to maintain in a 2003 statewide referendum.
Thibodeau said while the 125th Legislature committed an additional $62 million to funding education, the state still has a long way to go before reaching that benchmark.
“For far too long we’ve been balancing the budget on the backs of Maine’s property taxpayers,” he said.
Harmon agreed, saying, “At some point, we really need to get there.”
Jones, a retired educator, had a different take on the additional money the state provided to the public school system. He said the added funding did not prevent his school district, RSU 3, from losing more than $400,000 in state subsidies because of the state’s education funding formula.
He said 73 percent of Maine voters agreed in 2003 that the state should either immediately fund education at 55 percent or phase in the funding over time. This year, Jones said, the funding level is at 43 percent, and last year it was at 42 percent.
“It’s a rejection of the will of the voters in the state of Maine,” he said.
Herbig said she thought it was “ridiculous” that the state had yet to honor the people's wishes on that issue, noting that Maine would increase its revenue by investing in in early education and vocational education.
“That attracts business,” she said.
“This is a commitment we made, and the voters voted in favor of that,” she said.
“I wish we could do it right now,” said Gillway. “If that 55 percent is reached, our property taxes would be affected. They would go down.”
Ares said one way the state could increase its revenue and honor the voters’ wishes is to refrain from past practices of providing “generous tax breaks to the wealthiest Mainers.” Investing in early education, she said, carries benefits like decreasing incarceration and preventing drug abuse.
“This is not a place to be economizing,” she said. "It’s as important as reducing the national debt.”