AUGUSTA – Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci passed up an opportunity Wednesday to address hundreds of town officials attending the 70th annual Maine Municipal Association Convention’s gubernatorial candidate forum.
Although three other candidates for governor did make the meeting, the event’s organizers and participants remarked on Baldacci’s absence. One expressed “disappointment” in the governor’s decision to ignore more than 300 municipal representatives from across the state.
“Clearly, we’re disappointed that he wasn’t here, and I think the delegates would have benefited from having him here, and I think he, hopefully, would have benefited from having been here and heard their questions,” said Chris Lockwood, executive director of the Maine Municipal Association. “These delegates are all people who are very interested in key public policy issues.”
Baldacci’s campaign staff deferred questions about the governor’s absence to his State House press office where spokeswoman Crystal Canney offered an optimistic, yet cryptic, response when asked about Baldacci’s whereabouts Wednesday.
“He had a pressing meeting he had to attend, but it’s all good for the state,” she said, declining to comment on reports that the governor was involved in negotiations concerning the future of the former Georgia-Pacific plant in Old Town.
Meanwhile, at the Augusta Civic Center, Republican gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock offered no comment on the governor’s absence, but independent challenger Barbara Merrill and Green Independent Party nominee Patricia LaMarche said the incumbent had let a key group of Mainers down.
“Certainly his administration has been sending the message continually on tax policy and spending that the problem isn’t Augusta, that the problem is local government,” Merrill said. “I think that’s a pretty arrogant statement given the state’s current financial disrepair.”
“You have to wonder if the groups that he chooses not to see are the groups he doesn’t care about,” LaMarche said. “If I were among his advisers, I’d be very concerned about that potential public perception.”
Bob Williams, a delegate from Madawaska, said political considerations were probably a factor in the governor’s decision to pass on the MMA, an organization Baldacci has sparred with on more than one occasion in the last four years.
“He probably has a little more to gain by avoiding these confrontations,” Williams said.
The tone remained cordial throughout much of the 90-minute candidates forum that was moderated by Don Carrigan of WCSH-TV6. During a question period, city and town officials expressed considerable interest in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a spending cap plan that will appear as Question 1 on the fall ballot.
Although the delegates wanted to know what the candidates would do as governor to implement TABOR if it is approved by voters, Woodcock reminded them it is the Legislature that will have the first opportunity to revise the citizens’ initiative. The only candidate to support the proposal, Woodcock said state policymakers should be careful about rewriting a law that reflects the majority of Maine voters.
“We would not recognize tweaking TABOR if the citizens did not feel that was necessary,” Woodcock said.
LaMarche said TABOR would not be on the ballot if Mainers did not feel there was a problem with taxes in the state. Still, she opposes TABOR because she perceives it as an overly restrictive approach to a complex issue and does not necessarily get to the root of the problem. She likened the spending remedy to locking a misbehaving teenager in a bedroom.
“It doesn’t mean that you trust them any better,” she said. “We really need to have more effective and better leadership whose priorities reflect the priorities of the rest of the state of Maine.”
Merrill said she was opposing TABOR because it offered “less of the same” instead of pursuing innovative approaches to improving the state’s economy and tax system.
“[TABOR’s] not going to get Maine’s economy off the dime or move us forward,” she said. “But when I’m governor – and if TABOR is passed – I will make this promise to you: We’ll live with it and the state won’t pass on any increased costs to local government.”