BANGOR, Maine — Six of the Republican candidates for governor agree on the path forward on most of the major problems facing Maine, but a forum hosted Wednesday evening by the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce revealed that they would use various paths to get there.
The 90-minute debate, which was attended by all of the Republican gubernatorial candidates except Bruce Poliquin, was much like dozens of similar events over the past several weeks in that candidates were forced to summarize their positions on complex issues in 60 seconds or less.
With an audience mostly from the Bangor area, moderator Catherine Pegram of WABI-TV started with a question about whether the candidates favor using state money to rehabilitate or replace the Bangor Auditorium.
Candidates Steve Abbott, Bill Beardsley and Peter Mills said they favored using some form of taxpayer money — through either a bond or with the state’s operating budget — for Bangor Auditorium or another project that would have a similar impact.
“I would not rule out using some state funding for development purposes if it were clear that other people helped,” said Mills. “If all the other pieces were in place, it seems reasonable for the state to chip in.”
Abbott said a new arena is “critical,” though he said state funding “should not be the primary driver.”
A new arena “is important not just for Bangor,” he said. “It’s important for northern and eastern Maine.”
Candidates Matt Jacobson, Paul LePage and Les Otten said there are more important ways for the state to spend taxpayer money.
“Rather than run to the problem with tax money, let’s see some private companies come forward,” said Jacobson.
Otten and LePage said their opposition to public funding for the project is based on the state’s inability to afford it.
“Right now state government needs to stop spending money,” said Otten. “We need to do more with what we have before we start building new things.”
Asked what they would do with the tax code, every candidate identified a specific tax he would reduce or eliminate, except Beardsley.
“We need to focus on tax relief and not tax reform,” he said. “I just say we need to bring them all down.”
Pegram’s question about what should be done to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development drew some spirited responses.
“I would eliminate it,” said Beardsley. “The governor should be the chief economic development expert in the state.”
LePage said the state should promote itself through a public-private partnership, but he noted those efforts won’t do any good unless Maine improves its business climate.
“We need to reform the regulatory system from a control system to an oversight system,” he said. “If you do that, you’ll find a lot of businesses that want to come to Maine.”
The discussion about economic development triggered the most passionate exchange of the night, between Mills and Otten.
Otten, in making a point that various state agencies should be working together more toward economic development, mentioned a tentative plan by The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor to build a facility in Florida to study the genetics of mice.
“We’re about to lose 7,000 jobs to Florida,” said Otten. “While we’ve been sitting around and fighting for fiefdoms, we’ve let the big one go away.”
Mills, during the next question, angrily called Otten’s statement a “falsehood.”
“The state of Maine is not sending 7,000 jobs to Florida,” said Mills. “The state of Maine couldn’t possibly have competed for that facility.”
Otten, given time to respond to the attack, said he was “appalled” to be challenged by Mills.
“I have been told that Jackson Lab is moving 200 jobs to Florida to create another 7,000 jobs,” said Otten. “I stand by my statement.”
Jackson Laboratory is in discussions with the state of Florida to build a 145,000-square-foot facility there with the help of up to $200 million in funding from Florida taxpayers. Maine, because of its small budget and scant resources compared to Florida, cannot compete against Florida’s offer, according to Gov. John Baldacci in an April 12 story in the Bangor Daily News.