Four gubernatorial candidates square off on universal health care, wind power, budget

This story was published on Sept. 16, 2006 on Page C1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

SOUTH PORTLAND – The four major gubernatorial candidates presented clear choices on health care reform at a forum Friday.

Democratic Gov. John Baldacci supports pressing forward with his Dirigo Health initiative, Republican Chandler Woodcock supports reforming Dirigo and promoting private sector competition, and independent Barbara Merrill would give time for a blue ribbon commission to make improvements to Dirigo before abandoning it altogether. Maine Green Independent Pat LaMarche favors a government-backed, single-payer model.

Saskatchewan was the first Canadian province to adopt a universal health care program, and the entire country had universal health care within five years, LaMarche said. “We can be the next Saskatchewan,” she added.

The debate, sponsored by the American Lung Association of Maine, focused on health care, but the candidates sparred with Baldacci over state spending. And Merrill chastised Baldacci for declining to take a stand on a large wind power project proposed near the Sugarloaf ski resort.

In her opening remarks, Merrill mocked Baldacci’s refusal to take a stand on the Redington wind farm project. Then she produced a waffle iron, which she presented to Baldacci as “the first and inaugural waffling iron” for waffling on the issue.

“I don’t believe we have the luxury of turning our noses up against a technology that begins to address global warming,” she said of wind power.

Afterward, LaMarche acknowledged that while she favors wind power, she, too, was undecided on the Redington project. She said she may support it if she satisfies her concerns about whether icing could disrupt power generation.

On health care, Woodcock said the government is ill-equipped to deal with the problems that could be better handled by encouraging private-sector competition. He also said the state could do a better job of managing its spending.

“Health care is personal and individualized, and state government needs to recognize that,” Woodcock said.

He also said the current “certificate of need” process should be altered so the state doesn’t have sole control over approving new health care facilities, and that the state should do a better job of monitoring spending.

Baldacci said his Dirigo Health program designed to provide health care for the uninsured was a bold step in the right direction, and he said he hopes his blue ribbon commission can suggest additional ways to improve it.

Merrill said she supports letting the blue ribbon commission do its job. But if it fails to yield fast results, then the state should look to the example set by Massachusetts, which has an alternative approach to universal health care. Under the Bay State’s system, everyone has to carry insurance, with a combination of subsidies and penalties to make coverage more affordable and encourage people to buy it.

LaMarche said there was no need for additional blue ribbon commissions because previous ones already recommended universal heath care.

She also said she would create a Department of Environmental Medicine commission to study the environmental impact on Mainers’ health, and she plans to announce next week a plan to create a Maine Health Care Authority similar to the Maine Turnpike Authority.

On the budget, Baldacci touted his success in eliminating a shortfall of more than $1 billion that confronted him when he came into office. He also touted his ability to balance the budget and create a modest surplus.

But Merrill, LaMarche and Woodcock accused the administration of resorting to accounting gimmicks and borrowing proposals.

Woodcock said it’s wrong to say the state budget is balanced when the state still has debts including $400 million in unpaid Medicaid bills to state hospitals. “We owe a great deal of money in this state,” Woodcock said.

All four candidates opposed raiding the tobacco settlement money used to set up the Fund for a Healthy Maine to balance the budget. Baldacci, Woodcock and LaMarche said they would support a constitutional amendment to protect the fund.