"On the Issues"

MMA Questions the Candidates For Governor

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2010)
By Eric Conrad, Director of Communication & Educational Services, MMA

All 12 members of the Maine Municipal Association’s Executive Committee took turns questioning four of the candidates for governor during a day-long forum on July 14.

State Senate President Libby Mitchell, Waterville Mayor Paul LePage, Eliot Cutler of Cape Elizabeth and Shawn Moody of Gorham visited separately and answered questions for 60 minutes each.

The questions concentrated on municipal issues, primarily. For example, the candidates were asked about: raids on the municipal revenue-sharing fund; the appropriate level of state education subsidies; the adequacy of transportation financing; and, blanket property-tax exemptions.

However, candidates freely expressed themselves during introduction and conclusive remarks, talked about their motivation to run for governor and discussed the economic and financial challenges faced by the state.

MMA, which does not endorse or support political candidates, views discussions such as these as part of an ongoing effort to reach out to state leaders, share municipal concerns and advocate on behalf of its members.

Many gubernatorial candidates had visited with Executive Director Chris Lockwood and MMA State & Federal Relations staff prior to the June primary election. Also, a more debate-like forum is planned at the 2010 MMA Convention, Oct. 13 at the Augusta Civic Center. Former WMTW-TV/Channel 8 Anchor Tory Ryden has agreed to host that event.

Here is a look at what the candidates who visited July 14 said to the Executive Committee. Independent candidate Kevin Scott took questions from MMA separately, on Aug. 2. His answers are included here as well.

Libby Mitchell, Democrat

The Senate leader and former Vassalboro Selectwoman stressed her leadership experience, bipartisanship and municipal background.

Mitchell said that she knows municipal officials feel that some issues – school consolidation and cuts to municipal revenue sharing, to name two – were not handled well by the Legislature. She apologized and said her tone as governor would be more inclusive.Mitchell

“I don’t want municipal leaders to feel that they are not equal partners at the table,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree.”

Mitchell said much about her experience and accomplishments should buoy municipal support of her candidacy. For example, she helped pass state budgets in bipartisan fashion. She is the first female legislator in the country to serve both as Speaker of the House and Senate President.

Mitchell has a long history and voting record in Maine and her opponents have used that against her. But, before the MMA Executive Committee, she defended many of the positions for which she is criticized.

Tax reform is one example. Mitchell said she is proud that a tax-reform proposal passed the Legislature and was signed by the governor last session. The current state sales tax is too volatile and depends too much on major purchases, such as cars and appliances. That kind of consumer spending drops dramatically during trying economic times and the state budget is affected profoundly.

“The minus is voters rejected it,” Mitchell said, referring to a successful “people’s veto” drive that repealed the tax-reform law before it could take effect. “That doesn’t mean the problem is going away. That means we have to continue looking at ways to modernize the code.”

Revenue-sharing was an area in which the senator can see both sides. Municipal officials count on that money to manage their towns and cities, so when the state cuts the funding as significantly as it has – and, in some cases, imposed unfunded municipal mandates – it really hurts. As municipal leaders know, revenue-sharing funds drop naturally during a negative economy.

However, she said, state revenues have been dropping overall in recent years.

“It is ‘revenue sharing’,” Mitchell said. “When the state gets into trouble, we’re all in trouble.”

Mitchell, an attorney by training, also noted that she opposed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and TABOR II tax-cap initiatives, both of which were opposed by MMA. Voters rejected both proposals.

Paul LePage, Republican

The Waterville mayor, currently in his second term, emphasized his municipal experience. He has been mayor of the “Elm City” for six years and was a councilor for four.

His background is in business, and LePage said he “never dreamed” he’d become a politician. But what LePage considered to be questionable actions by a former mayor caused him to run for council 10 years ago – and now he’s a major party nominee for Governor.LePage

Waterville has kept its tax rate down, lowered municipal spending and improved its bond rating during his time in office, LePage said. He would take that experience and the same priorities to the Statehouse, if elected.

While LePage is known a fiscal conservative, his spending criticism before the MMA was aimed at the state Education and Health & Human Services agencies, primarily. He said state employees pay too little toward their own health-care coverage and state retirement packages are too generous.

LePage also said state spending on K-12 education is too high. The state has reneged on its pledge – and a citizen-approved mandate – to subsidize K-12 education costs, LePage agreed.

“I believe 55 percent is adequate but I will tell you that, as governor, 55 percent will be earmarked and will be concentrated to the classrooms,” he said. “I will be tough on administration and special education.”

LePage strongly criticized unfunded mandates that the state places on municipalities, without funding.

“Unfunded mandates that cross my desk (as governor) will go right into the trash can,” he said. “Unfunded mandates are devastating and I can pledge, not only to the Maine Municipal Association but to the citizens of Maine, that unfunded mandates will never make it across my desk. Period.”

LePage said he did not support the recent tax-reform legislation because state spending is the problem, not state revenues.

On leave from his job as General Manager of the Marden’s discount-store chain, LePage said he has worked for nearly 40 years in Maine’s private sector. The state is adversarial to business, he asserted.

“The problem with that is that wealth goes where it is welcomed and stays were it is appreciated,” the candidate said.

He suggested that making Maine more pro-business in terms of both the tax structure and regulatory environment would be a centerpiece of his approach to economic development.

LePage made it clear that the state has enough money to properly maintain its roads and bridges, but the money isn’t spent wisely.

Eliot Cutler, Independent

Mr. Cutler, a Cape Elizabeth resident, said the state needs to consider whether a gasoline-tax increase may be in order.

The question was about transportation funding. Cutler said the state has a “terrible time” finding $35 million each year to maintain state roads. He said there is a backlog in bridges and roads that need to be repaired or replaced.

“I think, No. 1, that we have to take a look at raising the gasoline tax in Maine,” he said. “We have to take a very serious look at it. It’s either that or a VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled) charge, or something.”Cutler

Cutler echoed Sen. Mitchell in saying that the gasoline tax, which largely is used to maintain the state’s transportation system, is challenged because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars. Thus, they are buying less gasoline – even though total miles driven are going up.

On other issues, Cutler said his three years as a deputy budget director in Washington, D.C., during President Jimmy Carter’s term in office, provided great experience.

“I spent three years saying ‘no’ and learned there is life after ‘no,’” said Cutler, a Harvard College graduate who practiced law in China for a time. Cutler said he would not be afraid to say “no” in Augusta.

One area in which he pledged to do that is with unfunded mandates that the state places on municipalities. He called unfunded mandates “a coward’s way out” and said they’re just another sign that the government system is broken in Maine.

On the campaign trail, he hears that all the time.

“There is a sense, I think, from everyone I speak with across the state that we’ve got to start doing things very, very differently,” Cutler said.

Like LePage, Cutler was blunt and emphatic about state raids on municipal revenue-sharing funds.

“I pledge not to raid municipal revenue sharing. I won’t do it,” he said.

Cutler said his position to fully fund revenue sharing is “an ante” to municipalities. He said several times that state and local governments must work together and try new approaches in addressing Maine’s fiscal challenges.

“To create (unfunded) mandates, and then to take away municipal revenue sharing and not provide the money to complete the specific tasks mandate by the directives, it’s irresponsible,” Cutler said.

Shawn Moody, Independent

Mr. Moody views himself as a pro-business candidate who also has compassion and understands that the safety net that government services provide helps people when they’re down.

After the June 8 primary election, he said, neither of the two successful major party candidates combines friendliness to business with a compassion for people in need. That’s when Moody affirmed his decision to run for governor.

Moody, of Gorham, has built an auto-parts and collision-repair company into one that has five locations and employs 75 people. He has no college degree and little government experience, but countered that the knowledge he’s picked up founding, running and growing a business is what Maine needs now.Moody

Moody’s primary service in the public sector came as a member of a committee that worked with the state Department of Transportation in building a Route 25 bypass around downtown Gorham.

He got a taste of what government leaders go through during that process, Moody said. A Gorham citizen, whom Moody holds in very high esteem, approached Moody after a meeting and his wife asked how Moody would like the bypass if it was splitting his property in two.

Still, Moody said, the bypass project “was successful and we’re driving on it today. We got the job done.”

Moody responded to many questions about municipal issues by citing his business background and the importance of bringing a business-like approach to state government.

He was respectful and even complimentary about municipal government, calling it “nimble” and “quick.”

“I’m a big proponent of local control,” he said.

Moody said he would not rule out a tax increase at the state level and suggested the income tax is the place to do it.

The candidate also was critical of unfunded mandates imposed on municipalities by the state and he said that having the state subsidize K-12 education at the 55 percent level is “unrealistic.”

He suggested that a better approach would be to take the average state subsidy over the past five years and add “a percent or two” to that to determine the appropriate level.

“To me, that is a realistic goal,” Moody said. “Fifty-five percent is not realistic.”

Kevin Scott, Independent

Mr. Scott portrayed himself as a governor who would come into office not with a personal agenda, but with the agendas of others in mind.

An agenda that he favors, Scott said, is the municipal one: he would not balance the state budget with cuts to municipal revenue-sharing; he opposes unfunded mandates pushed down by the state; he would support a bill to assess agreed-to fees for tax-exempt entities such as hospitals and colleges.

Married to the Chair of Selectmen in Andover, Susan Merrow, Scott spoke highly of the work that local officials do.Scott

“Local government is the most challenging,” he said. “As a result, it is the most successful.”

Though he does not hold elected office, Scott has been active at Andover Town Meetings, is Chair of the Andover Water District’s Board of Trustees and helps direct an ambulance company that serves 11 communities.

Scott runs an employment agency that specializes in finding “niche engineers” with special skills for companies such as Lockheed-Martin and Texas Instruments. He graduated from George Mason University in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Government & Politics.

Scott attributed many of the state’s problems to poor communication skills by Maine leaders and to weak decision-making.

One example is how the state backed away from the voter-enacted requirement to fund K-12 education costs at 55 percent. The current subsidy is about 43 percent, he said, putting great pressure on local property taxes.

Getting to 55 percent would be difficult, the candidate said, but “it’s just not acceptable to turn away from daunting challenges.”

Two other examples were the recent Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and TABOR II initiatives, both of which failed at the ballot booth and were opposed by the MMA.

Scott described those as “innovative,” grassroots movements that spoke to the failure of the Democrat and Republican parties in Maine. Legislators from those parties hold all but a handful of legislative seats, he said, yet taxpayer frustration is pretty widespread.

Asked about municipal consolidation, the candidate favors a when-it-makes sense approach. Scott said he became active in Andover municipal issues when there was a movement to close the town transfer station.

Scott was part of a group that looked into the issue and decided it didn’t make sense for town residents to drive “25 miles, one way” to another transfer station with gas prices being what they are. Instead, Andover kept its transfer station and cut spending on it by $30,000 a year.

Scott cited the ambulance company that he helps direct as a case in which a regional provider does make sense, rather than having his small town and others nearby take separate approaches.

 

CANDIDATES ON THE WEB

You can view edited versions of the appearances that all five candidates for governor made before the Maine Municipal Association by visiting our website: www.memun.org. Also, DVD copies of the edited and unedited appearances are for sale. The charge for members is $5 for each DVD (there are up to seven); the charge is $10 per DVD for non-members. That includes shipping and handling. Details are available at the website or by calling the Communication & Educational Services staff at: 1-800-452-8786.