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Looking into, and past, party lines at state candidates' forum

By Ethan Andrews | Oct 05, 2016
Source: Belfast Community TV video still Waldo County representatives and statehouse candidates in Belfast Sept. 22. Clockwise from top left, Sen. Michael Thibodeau and his challenger Jonathan Fulford, Kathleen Meil, Ryan Harmon, April Turner and her opponent Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, and Rep. James Gillway.

Belfast — Waldo County Municipal Association held a forum Sept. 22 at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast for candidates seeking Maine Senate and House seats representing Waldo County towns. We break it down here.

Roll call

SD 11 - Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, Jonathan Fulford, D-Monroe

HD 94 - Kathleen Meil, D-Rockport

HD 96 - Ryan Harmon, R-Palermo, Stanley Paige Zeigler, D-Montville

HD 97 - Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast

HD 98 - Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport, Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport

HD 99 - Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, April Turner, D-Freedom

Do you support Ballot Question 2?

Question 2 would impose a 3-percent tax on income above $200,000 per year and direct the money to schools through the state funding formula. Supporters say the goal is to get the state share closer to the legal requirement of 55 percent.

Candidates all voiced support for funding education but differed on whether Question 2 would do the trick.

Democrats supported it across the board on grounds that it would shift the cost of education away from property taxes toward income taxes, which have less impact on low earners. Republicans mostly opposed the question on grounds that the new tax would unfairly penalize high earners and chase "job creators" out of the state.

"The highest property taxpayers are the people who have the most money, and we're going to hit them twice," said House District 98 Rep. James Gillway, R-Searsport.

Follow up

Peter Peterson, a Swanville resident and small business owner, later asked those who supported Question 2 what they would do to keep high earners from spending "six months and a day" in another state to avoid the income tax increase in Maine.

Senate District 11 challenger Jonathan Fulford, D-Monroe, said the majority of job creators in Maine don't earn $200,000 per year, so it wouldn't be those people leaving. Other Democrats said the argument that potential employers would leave the state is fear mongering that hasn't been borne out. "Every time we do this, people say they're going to leave and they don't," said House District 97 Rep. Erin Herbig, D-Belfast.

Counterpoints on school funding

Gillway and House District 99 Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, R-Knox, said the bill was unlikely to help local schools. Kinney said Regional School Unit 3, which covers 11 towns in western Waldo County, already gets more than 55 percent from the state, while affluent towns in southern Maine get a smaller percentage. Gillway said the funding formula is flawed, so putting more money in was not the answer. "If you can smell salt water, you're getting the short end of state funding," he said. "Fix the system, then put more money into it."

Would you support lifting the cap on county corrections costs?

Under the unified state/county corrections system, county contributions were capped at 2008 levels. When the consolidation was repealed in 2015, the cap remained with provision for a 3-percent increase per year. Gov. Paul LePage has argued that counties, which now control their jails, should cover the entire cost.

All candidates opposed lifting the cap on the basis that it would increase property taxes, presumably without any reduction in income, sales or other taxes levied by the state.

Sen. Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who represents all of Waldo County in Senate District 11 and is currently Senate president, said the repeal and cap had bipartisan support in the Legislature and shifting costs to property taxes would be "a very poor idea."

House District 98 challenger Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport, used mill jobs as an illustration of why it was bad to shift costs to property taxes. "When you lost your job at the mill, your property tax didn't change," he said. "Your income tax did. It was flexible."

Would you support continued cuts to the municipal revenue sharing program, or would you try to restore it?

The municipal revenue sharing program sends a portion of state sales tax receipts back to municipalities. That amount has been cut significantly since it peaked in 2007 and Gov. Paul LePage has said he wants to end the program. Geoff Herman of Maine Municipal Association, who moderated the Sept. 28 forum, called the program "our Shroud of Turin" and "the emblem of the relationship between state government and municipal government."

Candidates voiced unanimous and strong support for restoring municipal revenue sharing. A tempered view came from Sen. Thibodeau, who said cutting from the program in the past "has always been a tough decision." Both parties have worked hard to restore it and would continue to do so, he said.

Would you go after offshore money? For current legislators: How did you vote on the 2015 bill LD 341: “An Act To Prevent Tax Haven Abuse”?

Most candidates supported going after income generated in Maine but sheltered from taxes in offshore accounts, but opinions ranged from strident opposition to a view that tax havens were wrong but there was nothing the state could do about it.

Thibodeau gave qualified support saying he had voted against LD 341 based on a Maine Revenue Service opinion that the state would not be able to collect the money, but he would support trying again if it was found to have worked in another state.

House District 96 candidate Ryan Harmon, R-Palermo, said the tax was unfair. "It sounds good, going after rich people," he said, but people at all income levels are evading taxes. "And it's well they do," he said. "Because we have an out-of-control tax system." He went on to decry a willingness from other candidates to add more layers of government.

His opponent in the District 96 race, Stanley Paige Zeigler, D-Montville, countered that "government is neither the problem nor the solution. It's just a tool."

What will you do about climate change?

Conversation on this question from audience member Seth Yentes focused on the solar bill in the last legislative session that was vetoed by LePage.

Democratic candidates were more passionate about the state's role with regard to climate change. Republicans saw the question through the lens of jobs and taxes. The question showed the widest gap in opinion in the House District 96 race. Harmon opposed subsidies for production of some kinds of energy and not others. Zeigler pushed for Augusta to take a leadership role on climate change.

Thibodeau said bringing manufacturing jobs back to Maine from China where there are fewer pollution regulations would be a good way to approach environmental concerns. Audience members accused him of not answering the question. The original question had included a piece about natural disasters, which Thibodeau took a stab at answering, voicing support for local emergency services. Gillway said he had supported the solar bill, but for the jobs it would have created, not necessarily the environmental stance.

How will you vote on Ballot Question 3?

Question 3 would expand background checks for private gun sales.

Fulford, Zeigler and Herbig gave qualified support, saying the law didn't recognize Maine's hunting traditions and would need to be amended.

Cuddy and House District 94 candidate Kathleen Meil, D-Rockport, said states with similar legislation have seen fewer police and domestic violence shootings. Gillway said that position, notably promoted by Maine Chiefs of Police Association, didn't seem to have a reliable source. The last police officer killed by gunfire in Maine was in 1989, he said. "We don't have a problem there." House District 99 challenger April Turner, D-Freedom, also opposed Question 3, acknowledging that she was going against many in her party.

Most candidates questioned whether the law was enforceable or would simply create hassles for lawful gun owners. Democrats, with the exception of Turner, saw a flawed law as better than nothing when it came to gun control. Republicans said the measures proposed by Question 3 were unenforceable and unjust.

Is the law good on property tax exemptions for nonprofits?

The question of whether to change tax exemption rules for nonprofits snarled candidates, many of whom said there are good reasons to shelter nonprofits from property taxes but the law might be giving benefits to organizations that shouldn't get them.

The question produced the only agreement between Thibodeau and Fulford. Thibodeau called it a "tough conversation." "Each tax exemption is given for a reason," he said. Fulford and Harmon both commented that "tree growth" exemptions are being used improperly.

Cuddy said the debate highlights municipalities' reliance on property taxes.

Gillway brought up that some nonprofits make payments in lieu of property taxes. If those exemptions were going to go away, he would want municipalities to be able to tax state land.

Can we get more judges to ease overcrowding in jails?

Candidates used this question from Waldo County Treasurer David Parkman to talk about getting smaller, nonviolent crimes out of the judicial system. Candidates across party lines talked about changing penalties for drug users and nonviolent criminals to lighten the load on courts and jails, where inmates are warehoused while they await trial.

PACs: What do you think of them and are they part of your campaign?

Political Action Committees raise and spend money in support of, or opposition to, candidates and legislation. In Maine PACs are limited in what they can contribute directly to candidates but may spend unlimited amounts on political campaigning of any sort as long as they do not coordinate with candidates.

Maine Clean Elections Act candidates, all Democrats, professed a desire to see money out of politics, but did not indicate how this would happen. Traditional candidates, all Republicans, challenged that Clean Elections candidates are beneficiaries of independent PAC spending. "PACs make Clean Elections not clean, because they can spend as much money on clean elections candidates as they want," Gillway said.

Harmon called PACs "necessary."

Whether it's the NRA or NEA, they're going to come at you," he said. "That's how it works."

Fulford addressed the $50,000 donated by SuperPAC Progessive Kick to supporting his Senate bid. Fulford learned about the money from The Republican Journal last week and sent out a press release condemning the expenditures. At the candidates' forum, he restated his opposition to the spending on his behalf.

Closing statements that caught our ear

Gillway tried separate himself from challenger Cuddy by noting the bill he sponsored to create a new Marine magnet school in Searsport. The school had upcoming deadlines that he didn't believe a freshman legislator could meet, he said.

Herbig apologized for coughing throughout the event. "I assure you, I have the stamina to continue," she said, in an apparent reference to Donald Trump's claim that he alone has the "stamina" to be president.

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Comments (2)
Posted by: Patricia Keyes | Oct 06, 2016 20:30

This forum would better have been spent discussing the validity of Keynsian vs. Austrian Economics, and how borrowing money so you can spend it will NEVER get you out of debt. About half the local well-meaning wonks that attended don't understand this idea. There has got to be a way to get the general populace out to these events. And there has got to be a way for candidates to address the underlying principles of their positions. Or not.



Posted by: Patricia Keyes | Oct 06, 2016 20:26

Here's why I could not contain myself and booed Kathleen Meil's dismissive attitude towards parents dissatisfied with the public schools (she was a public school teacher).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqTTojTija8
I am so tired of the stranglehold unions have on the public school system from the Feds to the local level.  In Maine, you CANNOT tell me that 7 administrators for every 10 school children isn't HIGHWAY ROBBERY!  In this state, LOCAL SCHOOLS under our Constitution, have the right to choose what they teach locally for the individualized needs of their kids. The Democrats, and indeed the undereducated low-information voters, keep voting to "get bigger Federal Grants" but fail to explain that we must PAY OUT matching funds that our small population CANNOT ADEQUATELY AFFORD.  Just because you get more "FREE" money (the income taxes you paid to be passed through the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Federal Govt, with TONS missing when it comes back to you) doesn't mean you have any money to MATCH it with here at home!  And to have it squandered on egg heads, instead of teachers, books, and materials, is ABHORRENT!  This is the same problem no matter what issue you see today.  They CREATE dependency on the govt by endorsing and promoting vices and social ills.  Teach a kid to be promiscuous, that they are apes, that sex is just a pastime and not the most special gift you can give one, and only one, other person, and all the social ills bloom in their time.  And a broken dependent class is born. A "class", ehem, of kids grown up and unable to see that they've been led down a path to a guillotine, their lives ruined in the process, so that multiple bureaucracies can pull a paycheck with fat benefits, while they live in misery and brokenness.



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