AUGUSTA, Maine — The best use of Maine’s North Woods and preservation of the state’s forestry industry emerged as major themes Thursday among 10 gubernatorial candidates who participated in a question-and-answer forum hosted by the Maine Forest Products Council.
With candidates participating from across the political spectrum, it came as little surprise to many in the audience that their strategies as the state’s chief executive would vary considerably. Questions posed to the candidates ranged from whether they would support creation of a national forest in northern Maine to where they would find staff for their Cabinets if elected.
The forum included Democrats John Richardson, Rosa Scarcelli, Patrick McGowan and G. Steven Rowe, independent Eliot Cutler and Republicans Paul LePage, William Beardsley, Matthew Jacobson, Les Otten and Steven Abbott.
Republicans Bruce Poliquin and Peter Mills and Democrat Elizabeth Mitchell were unable to attend the forum because of other commitments, according to James Cote, who moderated the event for the Maine Forest Products Council. Cote said none of the other 11 people vying for the Blaine House was invited.
One question asked of all the candidates present was their stance on combining the state’s four natural resources departments into one, a proposal that Gov. John Baldacci has forwarded multiple times despite stiff opposition. None of the candidates at Thursday’s forum voiced strong support for a merger, with answers ranging from outright rejection to a desire by some to revamp larger departments first, such as the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Consolidation for consolidation’s sake does not make sense,” Abbott said. “Making one big superagency does not necessarily create efficiencies.”
McGowan, the former commissioner of the state Department of Conservation, agreed.
“These agencies consume less than 3 percent of the total General Fund budget,” he said. “There are other ways we can achieve efficiencies.”
Another line of questioning for the candidates was what they would do to preserve and enhance Maine’s working waterfronts. Most of the candidates identified problems that need to be solved but offered little in terms of solutions.
Richardson, former commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, said part of the problem is that coastal properties have become too expensive for fishermen, but the larger problem is that Maine does too little to promote fisheries products. He suggested that as governor he would triple marketing funding in that area.
Jacobson, whose campaign is focused on bringing jobs to Maine, said softening regulatory hurdles would help the fisheries and a range of other industries. “We need to make sure our regulations are reasonable and predictable,” he said.
Discussion of the merits of government regulations dominated several of the discussions at Thursday’s forum. The role of the Land Use Regulation Commission — specifically whether its dual role in planning and regulating land use in Maine, particularly in the North Woods — elicited several strong opinions.
Cutler called LURC’s handling of the Plum Creek development proposal “a train wreck that didn’t have to happen,” while Rowe and McGowan held that process up as an example of regulation done right.
“For the most part I think LURC has done a fairly good job,” Rowe said.
LePage had an entirely different opinion.
“I think LURC, like the [Maine] Department of Environmental Protection and the [U.S.] Environmental Protection Agency have become control freaks,” he said. “One thing I will not allow as governor is agencies writing the rules.”
Energy was another topic that received significant attention. Asked what they would do to reduce the cost of electricity for the benefit of paper mills and sawmills, each offered a version of the same answer: They would diversify the sources of energy in Maine, using everything from wind to liquefied natural gas to nuclear power.
“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket,” Scarcelli said. “We’ve made a lot of poor choices on energy policy in Maine.”
Beardsley said government at all levels should be more open to new ideas when it comes to energy, including working with Canada.
“Instead of being a state where we enact a moratorium on everything, we should open the door to more ideas,” he said. “There’s no way you’re going to produce paper at Domtar [in Baileyville] and Aegis destroyers [at Bath Iron Works] with wind power alone.”
Otten said the state’s already precarious energy situation is at risk of turning into a catastrophe because of the movement toward purchasing fuel-efficient cars. That reduces revenue from gasoline sales taxes.
“I think we should make an [east-west] highway [in northern Maine] to link Canada with Canada,” he said. “We could create a lot of revenue that way. We need to pay very close attention as the gas mileage goes up.”
Members of the audience said afterward that they were impressed with the content of the forum.
“This has been the best candidate forum I’ve been to,” said Ron Lovaglio, who was the state’s conservation commissioner for eight years under Gov. Angus King. “A forum like this is hugely important to get to know the candidates.”
George Smith, director of the influential Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, agreed.
“We’ve started to get some of these people pinned down on the issues that matter to the state’s natural resources network,” he said. “I admire everyone who’s willing to tackle all the problems we’re dealing with right now.”