BANGOR, Maine — The five candidates for governor talked about arenas, taxes, tourism and the future of forest products at a Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce-Rudman & Winchell Gubernatorial Debate at Husson University on Thursday night.
Jobs and the economy have remained a focus of the gubernatorial campaign, and how Maine’s next governor might address issues affecting the state’s business community was the focus of most questions by moderator Mark Woodward, former executive editor of the Bangor Daily News.
The race has remained tight in recent weeks, according to polls, with Republican Paul LePage keeping a small lead over Democrat Libby Mitchell. Independent candidates Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott have trailed in the polls to varying degrees.
While there has been some heated back-and-forth in debates leading up to Thursday night’s forum, the event was relatively staid.
Asked if they would support using taxpayer dollars to fund a new Bangor arena, LePage and Cutler both said it would be hard to do so given the state’s pending budget deficit. Mitchell said given the tight times, new ways of financing may need to be explored, and she mentioned consideration of a local option sales tax, which would be a sort of local tax that would help finance the project.
Moody said he would have to look at the proposal and see if funding it would be in the best interest of Maine. Scott said he would support it and suggested that’s what bonding is for — to invest in Maine communities so they can grow.
Woodward asked the candidates if they would preserve business tax breaks through the Pine Tree Zone and the Business Equipment Tax Reimbursement programs.
Cutler answered no, adding, “You can’t start by having dug the hole deeper. You can’t start with one or two hands tied behind your back. You have to start with a clean slate.”
Scott said he would support both programs. Moody noted the importance of the BETR program and said any deal he would make “would have to stand the test of time.”
Mitchell said both programs have worked well, and businesses need predictability so they can make plans.
LePage also said he wouldn’t promise to leave those programs intact. He suggested that Maine needed to look at programs that helped businesses up front with capitalization rather than provide tax credits after the fact.
On ensuring the future viability of forest products in Maine, LePage said the state needed to try to get the first-tier paper companies back in the state and get sawmills back in operation here. Raw materials should be turned into finished products here, he said.
Mitchell noted that some paper mills in Maine have adapted to new technologies. The Sappi mill in Westbrook, for example, makes release papers used to create textures on synthetic fabrics.
“In this economy, it’s innovate or die,” she said.
Moody said he saw the forest products sector as “one of the backbones of our emerging economy.” The average paper mill employee is age 48 to 50, he noted, and that represents an opportunity for younger workers to get into the field.
Cutler said that overall, the state needed to improve the conditions to allow industry to expand in Maine. In particular, he said, the cost of energy is too high compared with states and regions Maine competes with in terms of wood products: the Pacific Northwest, Wisconsin and the Southeast. He suggested a public power authority to help lower energy costs here for industry.
And while most of the candidates agreed that the state needed to spend more on tourism marketing to support Maine’s largest economic sector, they also acknowledged the budget hole ahead as well.
Mitchell suggested Maine should market four-season tourism and said that the industry and state should work together to fund it.
“We need to be looking strongly at policies that make Maine competitive, lower the cost of doing business in Maine,” said LePage.
Cutler said that if the state doesn’t find a way to fund improvements and repairs to its roads and bridges, then tourism would suffer.
Scott suggested that the state should study whether the investments made in tourism marketing have produced good returns. And Moody said that he would consider using some money from the Department of Economic and Community Development to invest in tourism marketing.
On taxes, Woodward noted that Gov. John Baldacci has not raised broad-based taxes although fees and small levies have increased. He asked if the candidates also would not raise taxes.
LePage said the state tried to raise taxes but was overturned by people’s vetoes. He said he would not raise taxes and instead would look at the fees on the books with an eye toward cuts.
Cutler said taxes couldn’t be raised — or tax code changes discussed — until the budget gap has been closed and Maine’s economy is growing.
Scott said he saw lowering taxes as a priority. Moody said he saw growing the tax base as a solution.
And Mitchell said she didn’t see Maine people affording any tax increases “until this economy turns around — if even then.”
While the forum largely was without fireworks, Cutler did use his opening statement to take a jab at the party candidates, LePage and Mitchell. He suggested voters who are afraid of seeing LePage in office felt they needed to vote for Mitchell and vice versa. Instead, Cutler said, those voters should consider him.
In her opening statement, Mitchell jokingly wondered who should get the votes of people afraid to see Cutler in office.
Scott raised his hand.