SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Independent former Gov. Angus King and Republican Charlie Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, talked science and math education, government-funded research and development, immigration policy and more during one of the first debates in the campaign for Maine’s open U.S. Senate seat.
King and Summers squared off at a forum sponsored by the Manufacturers Association of Maine, the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.
While the forum, held at Texas Instruments’ semiconductor facility in South Portland, touched on a range of issues selected by manufacturing association members, few major policy differences emerged between King and Summers, save for their views on the Obama administration’s health care reform law and their approach to energy.
“Nothing glaring came out,” said Joel Rouillard, environmental manager at Fairchild Semiconductor who was among several dozen who attended the forum. “It was a good debate. It kind of gets us teed up” to make a decision.
Organizers also invited Democratic nominee Cynthia Dill, but she bowed out of the forum Tuesday, saying she couldn’t cancel a government class she teaches at Southern Maine Community College that conflicted with the debate.
King and Summers mostly lined up in their views on federal spending for research and development, encouraging students to embrace the science and math skills needed for many manufacturing jobs, and a short-term fix to the United States’ immigration policy.
King proposed hosting a “skills summit” following the Nov. 6 election where educators and manufacturing industry representatives could strategize about encouraging students to pursue skilled manufacturing careers that emphasize math and science skills.
“The businesses get to have direct input into what the young people are doing,” he said.
Summers lamented fundings cuts to the NASA budget and the removal of many technical skills classes from American high schools.
“We need more focus on science and more focus on math,” he said. “Now, if we want to get to space, we have to hitch a ride with the Russians. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with that.”
While the United States faces a $16 trillion debt and needs to make budget cuts, Summers and King suggested that those cuts spare research and development spending.
“We are facing an incredible budget problem,” King said. “To cut research funds because you don’t know where it’s going to lead is incredibility shortsighted.”
Both candidates also suggested the United States should allow more people to enter and remain in the country on H-1B visas, which allow businesses to temporarily bring in workers with specialty skills from overseas. But Summers said the emphasis should first be on equipping more people in the United States with those skills sought by high-tech businesses.
“We ought to be focused more on what we can do for our workers here in this state so that they and their children can have the best education possible so we don’t have to look beyond the borders,” he said.
In addition, the candidates restated their support for a tariff on athletic footwear that makes it possible for footwear manufacturer New Balance to operate three factories in Maine, employing 900 workers. That tariff is reportedly on the table as the United States negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement with 10 other countries, including major footwear manufacturer Vietnam.
King said U.S. negotiators have given up too much in recent years as they negotiate free trade agreements.
“What sense does it make when we say [to U.S. employers], you’ve got to pay your workers and protect the environment and then turn around and say [to foreign companies], you can send us all the shirts and shoes you want, but we don’t care what you do over there,” he said.
The sharpest difference surfaced over health care, with King supporting the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act and Summers calling for its repeal.
Summers said the insurance marketplace should be opened up to more competition so consumers can buy health insurance plans across state lines. He also said people should take some responsibility for their own health and that the Affordable Care Act should have capped payments awarded in medical malpractice suits.
King said he hopes the Affordable Care Act encourages a health care model that emphasizes payments for results, rather than procedures.
On energy, Summers called for an approach based on nuclear power, coal, increased domestic production of oil and other sources. He said he supports plans for the Keystone XL Pipeline that would transport crude oil from Canada to the southern United States.
“We have an oil-based economy whether we like it or not,” he said. “We are not going to get off the oil-based economy in the next five years or the next 20 years.”
But King said that transition could happen in five years if the United States develops its natural gas infrastructure, constructing pipelines and using “gas-by-wire” technology that allows the gas to be transmitted via electrical wires during off-peak hours, then stored.
On tax reform, both said the tax code should be simpler and the country’s corporate tax rate should be lower. Both also called for simpler regulation.
King said lawmakers should be able to sign off on regulations developed by federal agencies before they take effect. Summers said businesses need “predictability” and a small-business advocate who can help them navigate the federal bureaucracy.