PORTLAND – Four of the five gubernatorial candidates appearing on this fall’s ballot staked out their views on the state’s economy and tax policy Friday during the Maine Development Foundation’s annual meeting.
The tightly controlled forum format offered little opportunity for the candidates to engage each other since their responses were limited to questions submitted by the MDF in advance. Still, as the incumbent, Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci frequently found himself on the defensive.
Although independent candidate Phillip Morris NaPier did not attend the function, Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Party nominee Pat LaMarche and independent candidate Barbara Merrill rarely missed an opportunity to point out what they perceived as Baldacci’s shortcomings on taxes and the economy.
“I think we need a bit of candor here,” said Merrill. “We wouldn’t even be talking about this today if the governor and the Legislature hadn’t let us down so profoundly.”
The underlying theme for much of the discussion at the MDF meeting held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay dealt with real and perceived pessimism over Maine’s economy inside and outside the state. When asked how that perception could be reversed, Baldacci questioned the premise of the observation, saying that, in reality, Maine’s people inspire admiration and enjoy a reputation for being “the gold standard for employees.”
“I’m proud of Maine, I’m proud of the Mainers in this state and we don’t take a back seat to anybody anywhere,” Baldacci said.
The governor acknowledged the state does have its economic “challenges,” but added that, too often, the state’s detractors fail to recognize the achievements of state government including:
. Erasing a $1.2 billion budget deficit without raising any sales or income taxes.
. A record enrollment at the University of Maine.
. An increase in the state income growth rate that surpasses the national and New England average.
“We should be honest about our accomplishments,” Baldacci said. “Our plan for Maine’s future recognizes that and tries to address that in the areas of health care, energy and property tax relief.”
LaMarche said she has experienced a level of pessimism firsthand when talking with people from out of state who love visiting Maine but “don’t believe for a heartbeat that they could live here” because of the lack of economic opportunities and high taxes. Merrill said Baldacci has “no real plan to get Maine’s economy moving again” and that frequently state government is in a reactive mode. She said the state must do more to improve its “connectivity” with other regions – particularly Canada.
“We share 600 miles of border with Canada, but in many ways you can’t get there from here,” said Merrill, who has proposed establishing Maine-to-Montreal passenger rail service with a casino car to help pay for the service. “Maine doesn’t have the luxury of turning their nose up at [my] suggestion about how to get Maine’s economy off the siding and onto the main track.”
Woodcock said that frequently, perception is reality, adding that when Forbes magazine proclaims that Maine has the 48th worst economic growth rate in the country, “that’s reality.”
Criticizing Baldacci’s decisions to refinance the state’s pension debt and extend hundreds of millions of dollars in hospital debt, Woodcock questioned whether the governor had the right to claim the state had really amassed a $150 million surplus.
“In my house, if we owed $5 billion to the unfunded liability or $400 million to the hospitals, we wouldn’t have a surplus,” he said.
With the exception of Woodcock, all of the candidates said they opposed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a proposal to cap spending at all levels of government that will appear on the November ballot. LaMarche said taxes should be restructured but insisted the real problem needed to be solved with new leadership – not spending caps.
Merrill said TABOR provided too little at the state level because the law was statutory and not a constitutional amendment that could not be overridden by the Legislature. At the local level, she said TABOR provided too much because it would undermine local control.
“But if TABOR passes, I will not repeal the law as the governor and Legislature did with the MMA referendum initiative,” she said.
Baldacci said TABOR was “the wrong solution for a real problem” and preferred his plan to cap property valuation for year-round residents and to tie valuation increases to the rate of inflation since Maine real estate prices rise higher and faster than income.
“Why would you want to give permanent tax breaks to seasonal part-time residents in Maine,” Baldacci said in questioning TABOR.
Woodcock said he was supporting TABOR because it is a citizens initiative and will undoubtedly be approved by the voters this fall.
“It will be critical for the next governor to be a supporter of TABOR and implement it properly,” he said.