BANGOR, Maine — Two of the five candidates for governor discussed energy, transportation, economic development and cross-border relations with Canada Thursday during a “Leaders Roundtable” at the Hilton Garden Inn.
Republican Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler agreed that those four issues are intimately intertwined and that collaboration with Canadian provinces to the north may be the key to reaching some of Maine’s longest-held goals and solving the state’s most serious problems.
Reducing the cost of electricity for homes and businesses, triggering economic development in the upper half of the state and enhancing cross-border commerce were just a few of the issues touched upon in the one-hour forum, which was attended by dozens of entrepreneurs and officials from Maine and Canada. Thursday’s gathering was part of the two-day Atlantica Champions of Excellence awards conference.
The forum, which featured questions provided in advance and set no time limits for answers, allowed the candidates to provide detailed answers about how they’d act as governor under a variety of circumstances. While Cutler characterized himself as a strategic problem-solver, LePage came across as someone willing to pursue difficult solutions to complex problems regardless of the political ramifications.
On the topic of energy, LePage said the state’s focus on creating wind farms is premature and unlikely to help the situation.
“Wind energy is the future of Maine at some point, but today it is not commercially viable,” said LePage, who is a business executive and mayor of Waterville. “Buying inexpensive energy from Canada will be a wonderful thing for the state of Maine.” Later in the discussion, LePage said that due to the high public subsidies that are needed to make wind power generation possible, he favors other energy sources that have been largely shunned in Maine.
“I favor nuclear. I favor hydro,” LePage said. “I honestly believe at the present time that we need to keep studying wind to make it commercially viable, but I would much rather put my energies into hydro and nuclear power.”
To that Cutler offered one of the sharpest rebukes of the forum.
“Nuclear power is the most heavily subsidized form of power in the United States,” he said. “The bigger question is should we be pursuing energy technology at all if they’re going to be heavily subsidized? Just because there are significant issues or a problem to solve doesn’t mean you walk away from it.”
Cutler said if he’s elected, he’ll create a cabinet-level Energy Finance Authority that will explore ways to bring down the cost of energy with the goal of keeping paper mills viable and creating processing and value-added opportunities for some of the state’s natural resources, such as fish, lobsters and blueberries. Part of the authority’s charge would be to work with Canadian provinces on projects that would benefit all of “Atlantica” — an area that consists of rural New England and eastern Canada surrounded by metropolitan areas. Such an office could benefit an East-West highway project in Maine, which LePage and Cutler both discussed.
“We need to look to Canada for financial participation,” Cutler said. “This road is going to benefit Canada as much as it will benefit Maine.”
LePage said such a project would reinforce his belief that Maine is not at the “end of the pipeline, but at the beginning of the pipeline.” LePage said an east-west highway is both necessary and attainable, as is the rehabilitation of Maine’s railroads.
“We should have been doing these things 20 years ago,” he said. “Now we’re struggling just to keep the railroads alive. The next governor needs to be able to see past his nose and solve some of these problems.”
Tim Curry, president of the Atlantica Centre for Energy in New Brunswick, Canada, said he was pleased with the forum’s emphasis on energy issues.
“From my perspective, it’s important to pay attention on all these proposals on energy,” Curry said. “These two candidates have obviously spent some time thinking about all the alternatives.”
Imelda Gilman, president of the St. John Board of Trade, said she was encouraged that Cutler and LePage appeared poised to work with Canada if they are elected.
“Whoever gets elected, we’re off to a good start with our relationship,” she said.
The Atlantica Champions of Excellence conference gathered Wednesday night to honor several businesses and continued their activities Thursday with a tour of area businesses, including Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Old Town Fuel & Fiber and the Ocean Renewable Power Co. at the University of Maine.
Little was made of the absence of gubernatorial candidate Democrat Libby Mitchell, who announced this week that she wouldn’t participate in Thursday’s forum, nor another one scheduled for Sept. 2 in Brewer, because independent candidates Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody were not invited. Mitchell said she pulled out because she felt it was unfair to exclude candidates who have earned the right to appear on the November ballot.
David Milan, president of the Bangor Region Development Alliance, one of the sponsors of the event, said he was disappointed with Mitchell’s withdrawal.
“I think Libby Mitchell’s withdrawal at the 11th hour was extremely insulting to the people of the Bangor region,” Milan said after Thursday’s forum. “We found out her reasoning from the Bangor Daily News. In all of the planning we did with her campaign for this event, this issue was never brought up.”
Mitchell, who met with the Bangor Daily News’ editorial board later Thursday morning, said she hoped the organizers of Thursday’s forum would change their minds about inviting Scott and Moody.
“It’s not as if the voters will not hear my ideas,” she said. “Sometimes you have to take a stand to get something changed.”