AUGUSTA, Maine — Independent candidate for governor Eliot Cutler, who touted an economic development plan Thursday that rehashed some of the policy proposals he’s discussed in recent months, lashed out at Republican Gov. Paul LePage for talking more about jobs than planning to create them during his first term as governor.
“A lot of people who voted for Paul LePage assumed that here was a guy who was a businessman and a manager who could transition us to a 21st century economy,” Cutler said. “That hasn’t happened. He’s been inept. He has no plan and no policy even in areas where he claims to, like energy. … People are struggling all over the state of Maine and Paul is simply sticking to his ideological guns without paying attention to facts that are right in front of him about what’s going on in this state.”
The LePage campaign countered that many of Cutler’s proposals echo themes that the governor has been talking about since the 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
“The proof is in the pudding. There has been major job creation under Gov. LePage,” LePage campaign spokesman Alex Willette said. “What you’re hearing from Eliot and Congressman [Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike] Michaud are just distractions.”
Cutler, who is lagging significantly behind LePage and Michaud in the race but hopes to gain winning support in the coming weeks, told the BDN on Thursday the majority of his plan to create jobs consists of proposals he’s aired previously, dating back to last year.
“This is an effort to connect the dots of my policy proposals and to do it in a strategic way,” Cutler said.
Cutler’s plan crosses a spectrum of areas from boosting training opportunities for Mainers of all ages to bolstering efforts to capitalize on Maine’s natural resources, such as recreation areas, wood fiber, agricultural land and fisheries.
He also proposed — as he has before — to increase state borrowing for improvements to roads and bridges in order to undertake much-needed projects while the state’s debt load is light and interest rates are at historic lows.
On the education front, he repeated his “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back” proposal, which would reduce the cost of a post-high school education as long as the student promises to remain in Maine, and implementing a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for student loan repayments.
The independent said he would also restore funding for the Job Training Initiative, which was introduced by independent Gov. Angus King, reduced by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and eliminated under LePage.
“Every business manager in the state of Maine who I’ve talked to doesn’t say the major problem in Maine is taxes and energy prices,” Cutler said in an interview with the BDN. “The problem is finding a skilled, educated and healthy workforce. … It’s the same thing I hear from people who are looking at Maine [to locate their businesses]. It’s a workforce issue.”
Cutler’s comments came as LePage has been traveling throughout Maine saying that the biggest barrier to economic development is the state’s high energy costs, which he proposes to lower by purchasing hydroelectric power from Quebec and expanding access to natural gas.
Cutler, who also supports bringing more natural gas to Maine, said LePage’s energy plans for the most part aren’t viable.
“He talks about having an energy plan but he doesn’t have an energy plan,” Cutler said. “He has an energy fantasy.”
Willette rejected that notion.
“The governor has been a leader on job creation in this state by helping businesses thrive and creating over 20,000 private-sector jobs,” he said. “That’s all good progress from great policy initiatives.”
Michaud rolled out his economic development plan in February, which shares similarities with Cutler’s. It centers on raising the minimum wage, heavy investments in small business development and making the sophomore year at any University of Maine campus free.
“Maine needs a real, long-term strategy and an experienced leader who can work with Democrats, Republicans and independents to carry it out,” Michaud campaign spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said. “Unlike his opponents, Mike actually has a proven track record of working across the aisle to get things done. Eliot Cutler has been recycling the same old ideas for more than a year now but it’s going to take an experienced leader like Mike Michaud to undo the damage caused by Gov. LePage and bring change to Augusta.”
Whoever is elected governor this year — and in 2018 and 2022 and thereafter — faces stark economic realities because Maine has the oldest per-capita population in the country coupled with a low birth rate. Analysts as diverse as former Maine Heritage Policy Center leader Scott Moody and University of Southern Maine economist Charles Colgan, who advised past independent and Democratic governors, offer dire predictions that Maine is on the cusp of a “demographic winter” that will devastate the state’s economy.
Colgan told lawmakers last year that unless Maine can attract at least 60,000 new workforce-aged residents in the next 20 years, the state’s economy will become worse before it improves.
“People assume that if we could just keep our young people here, it would solve the problem,” Colgan said. “There are not half enough of them because not enough young people are born here. We have to get people from other places to move here.”
Other than talking about improving economic conditions generally and initiatives that would reduce the cost of education debt, none of the three leading candidates for governor has offered specific plans to address the need to attract young families from other parts of the country to Maine.