Candidates Forum: Gubernatorial wannabes at MMA Convention

(from Maine Townsman, October 2006)
By Liz Chapman, MMA

Three of the four major candidates for Maine governor sparred politely during a 90-minute forum hosted by the Maine Municipal Association at its 70 th Annual Convention on October 4 at the Augusta Civic Center.

More than 200 municipal delegates attended the forum, which helped kick off the MMA’s 70 th annual convention. Participating in the forum were Green Party candidate Pat LaMarche, Independent candidate Barbara Merrill, and Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock. WCHS-TV reporter Don Carrigan served as moderator.

Of the major candidates, only Governor John Baldacci did not attend. According to the governor’s spokesperson, his participation was cancelled the day before the event because of a scheduling conflict.

Republican Chandler Woodcock was the only candidate at the forum to endorse TABOR, while Independent Barbara Merrill called it an assault on local government and home rule, and Green Independent Pat LaMarche said she would support allowing local government to “opt out” of TABOR should it pass.

Meanwhile, all three candidates said they oppose any effort by state government to force regionalism onto local communities, including crafting policies that would provide financial advantages only to those that do.

The candidates said they support any voluntary efforts to consolidate services and costs to taxpayers, noting that many Maine municipalities have been cooperating on a regional basis long before it became a political issue.

What they did not support was state government forcing towns to merge against the wishes of local residents, arguing that Maine’s small diverse communities contribute significantly to the culture and quality of life in Maine.

“We need strong local communities where local voters, not state government, make the decisions,” Merrill said.

Attacking the Baldacci Administration

Although not there, the incumbent governor was nonetheless fair game for the forum participants. His opponents attacked his policies and criticized him for lack of leadership and fiscal responsibility during his first term.

Merrill blamed Baldacci for giving Maine the proposed TABOR referendum because of his failure to respect the wishes of the voters, expressed through a 2003 statewide referendum, to deliver adequate property tax relief; and his unwillingness to cut spending when the going got tough.

She said Maine voters have not forgotten that Baldacci refused to implement the MMA’s 2003 referendum, to immediately increase education funding to 55 percent. Voters also are still upset that Baldacci and the Democrats would have borrowed $450 million to balance the state’s current operational budget had there not been an intense public backlash against the idea, said Merrill, who left the Democratic Party over the borrowing plan and other policy disagreements with her party.

Merrill said Baldacci’s spending and budgeting habits have fueled support for TABOR, which ensnares local government in its effort to put firm restraints on state spending.

Woodcock blamed Baldacci for the Legislature’s failure to send annual bond packages to the voters to address crucial transportation, sewer and other major infrastructure projects, saying the governor lacked the leadership to bring the two sides together on such crucial issues.

He was also critical of Baldacci’s spending habits and called for cutting the state’s Medicaid program, which has been significantly expanded by Baldacci.

LaMarche criticized the Baldacci administration for its failure to develop an energy plan for the future, saying that the most difficult issue that will face local government in the future is energy.

She said that while she opposes TABOR, she believes the referendum “is a cry of pain we need to hear” and that Maine needs to reform its tax system so it relies less on the more onerous taxes, such as property and excise.

LaMarche: Full of energy

Pat LaMarche, once the Green Party’s vice presidential candidate, had the uncanny knack of bringing the discussion back to her two big campaign issues, universal health care and energy, regardless of the questions asked either by moderator Carrigan or the packed room of municipal officials.

LaMarche, 45, was the most animated of the three candidates and drew laughter during several of her answers.

She opened her remarks by saying that the biggest vulnerability for local government in the future will be the cost and availability of energy. Throughout the forum, she emphasized the need for state leaders to support bold energy alternatives, such as considering a wind farm as part of the redevelopment of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, or investing in northern Maine potato farmers who could produce large amounts of ethanol if they had the money and equipment.

Responding to a question from Madawaska Selectman Bob Williams, LaMarche said energy costs will probably make finishing Interstate 95 from Houlton to the St. John Valley unwise. She said the state should consider ramping up rail service in northern Maine as a way to better connect The County with Canada and the rest of Maine.

LaMarche, who lives in Yarmouth, also stressed the need for state leaders to gather together the smartest people on a particular issue and listen closely to what they say. She was critical of state leaders who fill important jobs “with someone’s driver or campaign worker” rather than finding and recruiting the smartest people on the issues.

In another of her favorite campaign themes, LaMarche described as “arcane” any discussion about choosing between teachers and firefighters for retirement health insurance. LaMarche favors a single-payer universal health care system for Maine, which would accomplish many objectives, including eliminating the need to choose which groups will get coverage.

She noted that Maine’s health care is among the most expensive and Maine people are among the sickest. “It’s expensive and we’re not getting our money’s worth,” she said.

LaMarche, a well-known figure in Maine and nationally among Greens, ran for governor in 1998 and garnered 6.8 percent of the vote, nearly two percentage points more than was needed for the Maine Green Independent Party to retain its official status as a political party.

Although LaMarche agreed with Merrill and Woodcock that the state should not force towns to merge, she advanced the idea of having school superintendents manage more districts. That way, she said, taxpayers could save money while still allowing schools to retain their “local flavor.”

“We need to be very careful we don’t (compromise) our quality of life for a dollar’s savings,” she said.

Responding to a question from Scarborough Town Councilor Patrick O’Reilly, LaMarche was the only candidate who said she would support a local option sales tax to help offset property tax rates. She added that cities and towns could further lighten the burden on property owners through a universal health care system.

When asked if local government should be allowed to “opt out” of the TABOR spending limits should the measure pass, LaMarche said she thought that was a great idea.

“And I think everyone should call their legislators and say, ‘You are the tweakers. Tweak us out of this” proposed legislation, she said.

Merrill: Polite but feisty

Merrill, who left the Democratic Party in a huff last spring, is hoping to become the first woman governor of Maine, as well as its third independent governor behind James Longley Jr. and Angus King.

The Appleton lawyer and former State House lobbyist described TABOR as “an insult to the people who show up and participate in town meeting.” Paraphrasing a radio talk show caller, she added, “TABOR is affirmative action for people who don’t want to participate” in government.

However, she pledged that if she is elected and TABOR passes on November 7, “we’re going to live with it,” a direct hit against Gov. Baldacci’s decision not to immediately and fully implement the citizen-initiated Question 1A even though voters clearly gave it their support at the polls.

“ ... And we’re not going to pass costs on to local government” if TABOR passes, Merrill said.

Merrill, 49, noted that even some TABOR supporters have recently admitted the referendum will need “fixing” by the Legislature because of several potential legal flaws in the citizen-written legislation.

However, Merrill said if TABOR passes and changes need to be made to the law, those changes should go back to the voters for approval, rather than the governor and Legislature deciding unilaterally to change the law.

Merrill said she would not support a local option sales tax, a popular idea especially in the big tourism destinations and Maine’s largest service center communities. Merrill added that she would, however, consider a countywide local option tax that would directly offset the cost of county jails.

Merrill, serving her first term in the Maine House, has focused her campaign on financial issues, which was the major reason she left the Democratic Party and ran independently for governor.

She spoke a number of times at the MMA forum about the new K-12 education funding formula passed under Baldacci’s watch that “will lead to the continuing emptying out of rural Maine” because it shifts money away from the poorer schools to the larger, wealthier districts.

She called for a new funding formula that would treat all schools fairly and give local voters even more control over education spending. She also called for local government to be a “full partner” with the state in identifying and resolving problems.

Merrill touted her status as an independent who could bring an inside knowledge of the workings of state and local government, and the perspective of an outsider to the job of governor.

She said that state government has deferred $130 million in highway and bridge projects this year because the two major parties failed to reach middle ground on a bond package. She said Maine has many municipal water and sewer projects on hold because of state leadership’s failure to compromise.

She disagreed with Woodcock about the state’s long-term debt, saying Maine’s bonding is well below allowable limits. She lamented that the state has not been able to draw down “generous federal matching funds” for much-need transportation improvements and said she would “build a coalition from the middle” to get the job done.

Merrill also expressed amazement and chagrin that under the Baldacci administration, the state’s unfunded retirement liability, scheduled to be eliminated in 19 years, has been “stretched to the max under the constitution” in order to avoid further cuts in the state budget.

Merrill also was blunt about Baldacci’s recent support to give municipal firefighters and police officers health care coverage when they retire. “We can’t even meet our (unfunded retirement) obligations to teachers,” Merrill said, noting that the new retirement benefit will cost the state $50 million to $100 million over the next decade.

“That was stunning in terms of fiscal irresponsibility,” Merrill said of the new law, after cautioning her municipal audience that she would not agree with them on every issue.

Woodcock: Spending reform is key

Republican Chandler Woodcock often disagreed with the other two candidates with all of the aplomb of a gentleman. But he seemed automated compared to LaMarche and his responses seemed cursory compared to Merrill’s; frequently, the GOP nominee did not use his entire allotted time in answering questions.

In his opening statement to the convention, Woodcock said his administration would focus on improving Maine’s business climate, reducing taxes and implementing “real spending reform” at the state level.

A strong supporter of TABOR, Woodcock disagreed that the proposed law would shift power to the minority by requiring that increases in spending or taxation, above the limits imposed under TABOR, be approved by a two-thirds vote of a municipality’s governing board.

“It won’t be an issue if people are making good financial decisions,” he said. “It’s not a concern.’

In Maine, the annual town meeting is the governing body for 90 percent of communities. Historically, a simple majority of voters can approve or reject budgetary items.

Woodcock, 57, said he was “very supportive” of TABOR from the beginning, adding that he was “a spending reformer” in Farmington in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before running for selectman and winning three terms.

Many communities would not be impacted by TABOR, Woodcock said, because they already spend below their TABOR limits.

It was Woodcock, a lifelong resident of Farmington, who most often defended local control, something critics of TABOR believe will be irreparably damaged if TABOR passes.

Woodcock would not answer the question of whether he would consider making changes to TABOR should it pass, even considering that many TABOR supporters now concede the proposed law would need some legislative action to address certain flaws in the bill.

After being pressed by Carrigan, Woodcock said he would listen to the public and allow the Legislature to act first, which is the proper chain-of-command to review a citizen initiative once it passes, he said.

Meanwhile, Woodcock intimated what many municipal officials already believe that the Baldacci administration is trying to force consolidation onto local government by fashioning financial policies that would reward communities that do merge or consolidate services.

“Many communities already consolidate services,” Woodcock said. “I am disappointed that state incentives drive towns to regionalize (until) there is no real other option.”

The former teacher and sports coach did, however, think that half of Maine’s superintendents could be eliminated without any harm to the quality of K-12 education.

He said he opposes giving authority to municipalities to impose a local sales tax to offset the amount to be raised by property taxes, although he noted that Maine’s sales tax is narrowly applied.

“Spending reform is the key to balancing the budget in Maine and paying off our indebtedness,” said Woodcock, who argued that the cost of the state’s Medicaid program has mushroomed under Baldacci and must be reduced in order to rein in state spending.

Woodcock also took aim at Baldacci’s claim that state government is enjoying a budget surplus. “It’s impossible to have a surplus when we have the debt we have,” he said, including owing Maine’s 39 hospitals some $330 million in unpaid Medicaid claims.

NOTE: Governor Baldacci and the Maine Hospital Association announced just days after the forum that they had reached a tentative deal to pay the state’s hospitals some $500 million over the next several years. That sum includes the backlog of debt Woodcock talked about, plus money to increase future payments for the state/federal Medicaid program known as MaineCare. The state would pay $204 million and leverage $300 million in federal funds over the next three years to finance the deal.