Small businesses hot topic in debate

Posted Sept. 02, 2010, at 11:36 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Paul LePage and Eliot Cutler may have been addressing a room full of loggers, pulp mill operators and professional foresters Thursday night.

But many of the questions asked of the two gubernatorial candidates could have come from virtually any small-business owner in Maine:

How will you lower energy costs and skyrocketing health care costs?

What is your plan for improving Maine’s educational system?

Will your administration reform a regulatory system so often blamed for stymieing business growth?

For roughly 90 minutes, the two candidates — LePage the Republican and Cutler the independent — pledged repeatedly to make Maine more business-friendly if elected this November. But while the two men shared many goals, their approaches often differed.

The forum, held at Jeff’s Catering, was sponsored by the Maine Forest Products Council, Maine Pulp and Paper Association, Forest Resources Association, and the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine.

On the issue of energy, Cutler outlined his plan for a three-person Energy Finance Authority that would negotiate low-cost deals with Canadian power producers and work with the private sector to expand Maine’s energy infrastructure. In particular, Cutler said the state needs to expand natural gas lines up the major river corridors.

“When we do that we are going to reawaken the mills all over the state of Maine and we can do that with an Energy Finance Authority,” Cutler said. “And that’s an awful lot more sensible public investment than plastering the state with Pine Tree Zones.”

LePage said he would make sure that when looking at electricity generation contracts that are part of the power grid, a top priority be placed on tapping into the lowest-cost energy sources.

“My plan is to look at all of the energy sources and add one item to the calculation: Will it lower the residential and commercial costs to the ratepayers, and if it doesn’t do it, it’s not viable for Maine,” LePage said.

LePage and Cutler had different takes on the root cause of Maine’s high health insurance costs.

Cutler said his administration would emphasize wellness — using as models successful programs adopted by companies such as Cianbro and Hussey — and expand access to preventive care. The problem, Cutler said, is that for-profit health insurance companies have no incentive to offer wellness or preventive care programs.

LePage agreed that wellness is a major ingredient to lowering health care costs. But he said Maine’s policies are driving up the costs of health care through what he calls “Cadillac mandates” and by discouraging competition.

LePage said state mandates need to be brought in line with national standards and that Maine residents should be allowed to buy insurance across state lines to encourage competition in the market. He also called for more transparency in hospital pricing so that patients can shop around.

On the issue of government regulation and bureaucracy, both men took aim at the Land Use Regulation Commission.

“I think LURC is too big for its britches,” LePage said. “I think it needs to be cut back and I agree that [land use decisions] need to be sent back to the counties.”

Cutler said it is impractical and likely politically impossible to eliminate LURC. But he proposed transferring LURC’s permitting and licensing responsibilities over to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Cutler also has said he would eliminate the Board of Environmental Protection and instead have a three-judge panel consider appeals of DEP issues.

“On the first day I’m in office I am going to sign an executive order creating an Office of Regulatory Review and Repeal that is going to be headed by someone called the ‘grim repealer,’” Cutler said to laughs from the crowd.

Both men praised Maine’s private landowners for their stewardship of the state’s industrial forests and for often allowing public access for recreation.

While the two men disagreed on the use of public easements with private landowners — with LePage suggesting they were not necessary and constituted a potential government taking — both candidates pledged to work to develop incentives to help landowners keep their property open to the public.

Last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell reversed course and declined the invitation to the forum because the two other independent candidates in the race — Kevin Scott and Shawn Moody — were not invited.

Event organizers said they chose to invite the three candidates considered to be the top contenders in order to allow time for more in-depth debate and more questions.

Neither Cutler nor LePage mentioned Mitchell’s absence until the very end when both joked about having to debate each other.

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