Between stops at a local boatyard and lobstermen’s forum, independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler fielded questions from VillageSoup’s publisher, editors and reporters on topics ranging from the state’s budget woes to health insurance, fisheries and his status as an independent.

 

Budget is candidate’s top priority

Cutler said he would not reduce government waste by looking at cutting the number of employees.

“If we were Maine, Inc., we couldn’t get an opinion from an outside auditor,” he said. “On the other hand, we are the best turnaround opportunity in America. But we are bleeding right now.”

“How we budget in Maine is awful,” Cutler said. “We only run through appropriations 40 percent of what we spend.”

“The notion that we have a balanced budget in Maine is complete fiction. We need to start making structural changes,” he said.

Cutler said he would start the budget at zero and build up the programs the state wants to fund.

“We utilize 7,000 private agencies and contractors,” he said. “You can’t audit them all.”

Cutler acknowledged that the move to using nonprofits was made to get away from perceptions of big government.

“I’m not suggesting there was some plan afoot years ago to create the circumstances we are in today,” he said. “But this is where we are.”

Asked to elaborate on zero-based budgeting, Cutler used an example from his time in the Office of Management and Budget during the Carter Administration. The space shuttle program was in its infancy and Cutler said a full review of the program showed that NASA could get by with three shuttles instead of four.

Cutler turned to a reporter and asked him to consider the analogy of his father giving him an allowance. If the reporter, who hasn’t received an allowance in quite some time, asked for regular increases in his allowance, Cutler said, his father would eventually want to know why.

“I’m going to look at every single tax expenditure and force an evaluation so we know what the yield is,” he said.

Candidate would drop citizen regulatory panels, merge departments

Cutler said the citizen-run Bureau of Environmental Protection as an outdated government oversight construct that was was once useful but is now ready to be dissolved. He would replace it with a panel of judges. The BEP is charged by statute with providing “informed, independent and timely decisions on the interpretation, administration and enforcement of the laws relating to environmental protection and to provide for credible, fair and responsible public participation in department decisions.” It also reviews appeals of licensing and enforcement actions and has decision-making authority independent of the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The BEP consists of 10 volunteer citizen members who are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature for staggered four-year terms.

Cutler said panels such as BEP were created in the 1960s and 1970s to act as oversight for bureaucracies that were deemed untrustworthy at that time.

“Today the DEP is a professional department,” Cutler said. “There’s plenty of citizen involvement.”

“[BEP] stands as a red light at the border of Maine,” he said. Cutler said the same problem existed with the Land Use Regulatory Commission.

“We have combined licensing and permitting with planning,” he said. “You don’t end up doing the planning.” He gave as an example a recent bid by Plum Creek to develop an area near Moosehead Lake. “It cost $25 million and spent five years in the courts,” he said.

Cutler said he would shut down the Department of Economic and Community Development and create a department of commerce and tourism.

“We don’t have the luxury in Maine to have all these agencies,” he said.

Gas tax targeted for road repairs

Cutler said the Department of Transportation was considering returning responsibility for secondary roads to municipalities because it could not afford to pave the roads.

“We have a problem bigger than whether DOT is handing something back to communities,” said Cutler. “First, the Legislature has not figured out where to find the money to pave the roads. Second, you have a $3 to $4 billion unfunded liability. Real costs are going to occur sometime in the next 20 years to do major repairs and replacements and we don’t know how we’re going to fund it.”

Cutler said the last time the Legislature increased the gas tax was in 1999.

“In the last legislative session, there was a movement to raise the gas tax,” he said. “It was blocked.”

He said he did not want to return the roads to local taxpayers but there was a limit to how much Maine could borrow.

“If you are borrowing without a revenue stream, that’s an issue,” he said.

State retirement should move to Social Security

Cutler said the state should shift its employee retirement fund into the federal Social Security system.

“We need to push out the retirement age,” he said.

Republican governors serve as models

Cutler said governors he looked to, as examples, were Republicans John Hunsman in Utah, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and qualifying his next choice with an acknowledgment that it might be unpopular, Chris Christie in New Jersey.

He described New Jersey as having many problems in common with Maine, though more complex and on a much larger scale. Christie, he said, was asking fundamental questions and trying to reform a set of systems that were costing a lot of money and not yielding results.

Fisheries vital to Maine’s future

“Coastal communities are one of the hearts and souls of the state,” said Cutler. “Preserving the fishing stocks is critically important.” He said the territorial response of some communities to growing pressure on fisheries was not inconsistent with the way the lobster fishery had regulated itself for many years.

“We can cut down every tree and catch the last fish and crack the last lobster, but then there’s nothing left,” he said. “Whenever I leave office, I will not have succeeded if I haven’t advanced the ball in terms of keeping coastal communities intact.”

 

Self-insurance touted as solution to health care issues

“We have organized health care around health insurance,” Cutler said. He said companies had not controlled costs or provided good coverage. He praised companies such as Cianbro, Hannaford and The Jackson Laboratory, which are self-insured and provide wellness programs for workers.

“We have this structure in place for statewide accountable care,” he said. “We can do for small businesses and individuals what the big businesses are doing by being self-insured.”

He said the notion that more competition was needed was flawed and that providers were pressured to conduct more tests and procedures.

Asked for his opinion on methadone — in light of a recent case in which federal officials closed a clinic in Rockland — and about prescription drug abuse in Maine, Cutler said he didn’t know enough about it to comment, but equated the problem with a failure to adequately address mental health issues.

“The level of coincidence between mental health problems and substance abuse is roughly 50 percent,” Cutler said. “There is something wrong with that. We are not doing a very good job of dealing with either.”

“We need more screening at an earlier age and more treatment options than exist now,” he said.

Government borrowing led to break with party

Cutler, who is running as an independent candidate and has been officially unenrolled for two years said he has had allegiances to both parties over the years. He registered as a Democrat when he turned 18 because, he said, the Democratic Party stood for reform in those days.

“When [Gov. John] Baldacci tried to borrow money in 2004 to keep the lights on, I’m a fiscal conservative and that broke me and I left the party,” he said.

“I have friends in both parties,” said Cutler. “I don’t have any doubts of my ability to work with and lead members of the Legislature. “The only obligation I have is to the people of Maine and to my own integrity.”

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@midcoast.com.