AUGUSTA, Maine — Government spending was one of the most heated topics Monday in a gubernatorial debate in Maine, where polls show the Democratic and Republican candidates in a tight race.
Democrat Libby Mitchell, the state Senate president, countered continuing criticism from Republican and tea party-favored Paul LePage that state spending has increased under leadership.
“It has not. It is down to the size of 2004,” Mitchell said. “We have reduced the cost of the Legislature, we have reduced the cost of agencies, and we need to do more.”
Some of the cuts have been to schools and municipalities, the number of state employees has been reduced and some government agencies have been consolidated, Mitchell said.
LePage retorted that welfare costs have increased by 46 percent, and the state has a lingering debt of about $380 million to hospitals for Medicaid costs.
“We say that we’re paying our bills, but we haven’t. We simply haven’t,” said LePage, the mayor of Waterville.
Mitchell and LePage are locked in a race that’s too close to call. The latest poll by Critical Insights of Portland earlier this month found 32 percent supporting LePage and 26 percent supporting Mitchell. The survey found 11 percent supporting independent Eliot Cutler. Twenty-six percent were undecided.
Businessmen Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott also are running as independents. Democratic Gov. John Baldacci is completing a second, four-year term, and can’t run again because of term limits.
Cutler, a lawyer who served in former President Jimmy Carter’s administration, said the only way state government, which already faces a $1 billion budget shortfall in the next biennium, can climb from its fiscal morass and create jobs is through structural changes, not across-the-board cuts and furloughs.
“Right now it does cost too much to live and do business in Maine. We need to change that … we need to lower the cost of governing ourselves,” he said, adding that the Health and Human Services Department now contracts with more than 7,000 agencies.
The candidates differed sharply on whether the state’s mandate to fund 55 percent of public education — a promise not kept as budgets have been slashed — is attainable.
Moody said the 55 percent requirement is too high, and Scott said it’s attainable if costs are managed better. Cutler accused Mitchell of misinterpreting a statement he had made at an earlier debate.
“I have not said we’re going to get to 55 percent,” said Cutler. “I am not making promises we cannot keep.”
Mitchell said 55 percent “is not a goal, it is a law, the people of Maine told us to do that to reduce the property tax.” LePage said the solution lies in cutting waste from the bureaucracy and focusing on core curriculum in the schools.