PORTLAND – Maine’s first online gubernatorial forum provided all five candidates Tuesday with the opportunity for a cyberspace dialogue on a variety of issues, including the state economy.
Hosted by the Portland Press Herald, the Society of Professional Journalists and WMTW-TV8, the event was televised live by the ABC affiliate from the Hannaford Lecture Hall at the University of Southern Maine.
Democratic incumbent Gov. John E. Baldacci, Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Party nominee Patricia LaMarche, independent hopeful Barbara Merrill and Phillip Morris NaPier, also an independent candidate, fielded a variety of questions in a sort of free-form format.
The questions originated from an audience of about 100 spectators and, at other times, from those viewing the forum on the Internet. Portland Press Herald reporters Paul Carrier and Josie Huang and radio news producer Irwin Gratz of Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. were also on hand to question the candidates on statewide issues. Frequently, questions were directed to a single candidate, but in other instances, WMTW moderator Doug Cook would ask all of the candidates to respond.
Pine Tree Economic Zones, established by Baldacci to stimulate business activity in economically depressed areas of the state through tax breaks, ignited some discussion among the candidates. It prompted Woodcock to remark that government should not be endorsing any economic policy that pits one portion of the state against another.
“I think that all portions of the state should have equal opportunity,” Woodcock said. “If you have a vital business climate that allows for expansion, it will grow. But I don’t think the state should be controlling which region should grow economically.”
Merrill said the governor’s Pine Tree Zones had not delivered on the promise to revitalize rural Maine. She said many Mainers, particularly those in northern Maine, were frustrated with the initiative.
“Frankly, we need a level economic playing field for all businesses – not just the businesses that have the savvy to have a lobbyist,” she said.
LaMarche pointed out that many existing Maine businesses competing with Pine Tree Zone businesses were displeased with the fact that they had labored to succeed without the program only to see their competition receive an advantage at their expense.
“So they do seem to be, in many ways, unfair,” she said. “I guess my biggest problem is that when you see that sign as you come into Maine that says: ‘If your business were here, you’d be home right now.’ It should be changed to: ‘If your business were here, you couldn’t get a state contract if your life depended on it.’ The state hasn’t been setting a very good example. We need to not be investing in businesses that do all of our tourism out of New York.”
When Cook turned to NaPier, the candidate responded by asking, “What was the question?”
“Well, I’m not sure I know a lot about the Pine Tree Zones – I don’t know anything about it. Can you explain it to me?” NaPier asked Cook.
The moderator declined and handed the question off to Baldacci who said his Pine Tree Zones initiative had worked because of aggressive tax incentives that attract new businesses.
“We realize that Pine Tree Zones are successful and they are drawing in new businesses like T-Mobile [in Oakland] which brought 700 new employees and health care benefits – it never would have happened without it,” he said.
All of the candidates are scheduled to appear in other televised debates before the election that is only 20 days away.