PORTLAND, Maine — The five contenders for the Blaine House talked about business clusters, how to spur innovation and ways to improve Maine’s roads and bridges at a Portland Regional Chamber forum Wednesday.
With less than a month before the Nov. 2 election, the venue at the Holiday Inn by the Bay was packed with almost 600 attendees at the hourlong forum. Recent polls have indicated a tight race between Republican Paul LePage and Democrat Libby Mitchell, with independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott trailing. Polls have also shown an increase in the number of undecided voters.
Moderator Gregg Lagerquist of WGME asked Mitchell and Moody whether they thought Maine had a bad business climate, and what they would do to improve it. Questions in the first round were each posed to two candidates, giving them more time to answer.
The state too often focuses on a single business, said Mitchell, and should instead concentrate on developing whole clusters, such as composites, clean energy, biotech and value-added processing of products from Maine’s natural resources. She said Maine’s work force must be aligned with the needs of the state’s businesses.
And Mitchell also proposed merging the state’s departments of Economic Development, Energy and State Planning into one office that also would include advocates to help business people work their way through the state system.
“I would be a partner, make sure we’re creating jobs,” said Mitchell. “Small businesses are clearly the backbone of our economy.”
Moody pointed to two specific differences in Maine and federal tax law that he said discourages investment and growth in business here. The first is referred to as “Section 179” of the Internal Revenue Service codes, and under federal law, allows a business to accelerate depreciation of equipment purchases of up to $250,000. In Maine, that’s capped at $25,000.
Another is the “loss-carry” law that allows a business owner to carry losses from a bad year into the next year, to offset gains. That’s allowed at the federal level, but not at the state level, said Moody.
Mirroring the federal system would spur more businesses to make investments, said Moody, which would increase job growth and increase personal property tax revenues in Maine.
“You’ve got to allow the entrepreneurial spirit to grow, you’ve got to fertilize it, you’ve got to water it,” said Moody.
Asked about how to fund Maine’s highways, bridges and other infrastructure, Cutler said some of the state’s roads are so bad that they may drive tourists away. He referred specifically to Route 175 to Castine and Route 15 to Moosehead Lake.
Cutler said he didn’t want to raise the broad-based gasoline tax, but noted there were few options to increasing investment. The state can bond, borrowing money, but the problem comes in paying that money back, he said.
An option, he said, were new vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, fees, essentially a new way of taxing motorists in light of declining gas tax revenues due to more fuel-efficient cars. Others included more toll roads and bridges, appropriations from the general fund or an increase in the gas tax.
“I’ll listen to any other options, but we have to fix the roads and bridges,” he said.
LePage agreed the roads were in “desperate shape.” He suggested the state needs to prioritize where money is spent. He pointed out that the city of Waterville got $750,000 to repair a 150-year-old foot bridge, while potholes in roads go unrepaired.
The state should find savings in government and spend money where it’s most needed, he said.
Later in the debate, Lagerquist asked all the candidates what they would do as governor to boost job creation in the state.
Scott proposed a system through which public schools in Maine primarily used locally grown foods to feed students. That would boost Maine’s agriculture sector, as well as other connected industries, creating jobs, he said.
Cutler said state government must be squeezed, to become as efficient as possible. Bringing the cost of electricity down and making the state more business-friendly will draw investment here and create jobs, said Cutler.
LePage said the biggest complaint he hears from small businesses is the over-regulation by the state. As governor, he would streamline the permitting process, he said. Each regulation would be studied to see if it costs jobs, or helps the state create jobs, he said. And he would work to increase the quality of public education in Maine and lower energy costs.
Mitchell said the seed capital tax credit in Maine should be beefed up to help small businesses grow. And as governor, she would work to improve high-speed Internet access across the state, Mitchell said.
Moody said small businesses have capital, but aren’t confident in the economy, and so aren’t making new hires. He said as governor he would work to make sure that owners of small businesses have the educational resources needed to learn how to grow their operations, which would organically produce more jobs in Maine.
The forum also featured a lightning round: questions answered by candidates quickly, with a yes or no (usually). In the round, the audience learned that Mitchell had never camped at a Maine state park, but the other candidates had. None of the candidates thought the state’s new medical marijuana law would “hurt Maine.” Scott, Moody, Mitchell and Cutler didn’t think the Department of Environmental Protection should be moved into the Department of Agriculture, while LePage thought it should be “partly” absorbed.
And on other specific questions:
Lagerquist asked whether mountaintop-based wind power is worthy of state support.
Moody: We can’t give up on alternative energy.
Mitchell: It’s clean energy and jobs.
Cutler: Yes, as long as you site it properly.
LePage: If we can afford it.
Should the governor have line-item veto power over the budget or otherwise?
LePage: A good governor doesn’t need it, but a weak governor may have to have it.
Mitchell: I don’t need it.
Is continuing of school consolidation a priority for you?
Moody: We need a second generation of consolidation to clean up the loose ends.
Should municipalities be forced to consolidate services, such as 911 emergency services?
Scott: Absolutely not.
Moody: Nothing should be forced. Communities are working on it now.
Mitchell: No, but we need incentives to encourage it.
Cutler: No — you’d think we [would have] learned by now.
Casino gambling in Maine — are you in favor of it?
Scott: I will work to create legislation that enables responsible gambling.
Moody: There are better ways to grow Maine’s economy.
LePage: To me it’s the people’s choice.
Cutler: What do we think? I think no.