AUGUSTA – Four gubernatorial candidates visited the third annual GrowSmart Summit in Augusta on Friday to respond publicly to The Brookings Report, a study of Maine’s economy that offers recommendations for state spending and investments.
Democratic incumbent Gov. John Baldacci, Republican Chandler Woodcock, Green Independent Party candidate Pat LaMarche and independent Barbara Merrill spoke during one of the afternoon sessions of the all-day conference, which consisted of discussions of each major theme of The Brookings Report: Maine’s economy, environment, quality of life, government spending, and unplanned growth and sprawl.
GrowSmart Maine, a Yarmouth-based nonprofit that promotes economic development statewide, sponsored the report and the conference. The report was published earlier this month by The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
The candidates addressed the 700 conference attendees, who represented the fields of economic development, land conservation, affordable housing and venture capital. Each candidate took the stage for 15 minutes, answering questions posed by Alan Caron, president and CEO of GrowSmart Maine.
The candidates had seen the questions beforehand and been briefed on the report.
Merrill emphasized the need for a strong state brand.
“I’m fixed on the belief that if Maine is true to itself … it will find the niche that promises us a healthy and productive future,” Merrill said.
Merrill expressed firm agreement with the report’s proposed $200 million Maine Innovation Jobs Fund, financed by savings in government spending. The fund would support research and development in the emerging fields of biotechnology, organic farming and precision manufacturing. Merrill pointed out the need for growing businesses to have less government regulation, lower tax incentives and access to greater venture capital.
Merrill said she was cautious of a 3 percent increase in the lodging tax, proposed to fund a 10-year, $90 million Maine Quality Places Fund to support land conservation, access to outdoor recreation and tourism promotion.
Woodcock, who spoke second, said he also was wary of the lodging tax increase but for different reasons.
“I’m not generally in agreement for increasing the lodging tax, but I could accept it if it was protected from the general fund,” Woodcock said.
He said that in the past, state government has raised revenues for specific funds but instead put them into the General Fund.
Woodcock expressed approval of the Maine Innovative Jobs Fund but said the government’s investment capabilities are limited.
“If we’re going to recognize investment we also have to recognize debt repayment,” Woodcock said. “But we have to be able to establish a different relationship between small businesses and government, one that’s not as adversarial as it is now.”
LaMarche spoke after Woodcock and echoed his enthusiasm for supporting innovative businesses in Maine and monitoring revenues raised for specific funds.
She said businesses are not coming to Maine quickly enough, and the reason is expensive health care. LaMarche proposes a universal health care system in Maine.
LaMarche differed from the other candidates in her confidence that an increased lodging tax would not scare away tourists.
“It makes sense. How many people here have gone to Florida?” LaMarche asked the audience, and several members raised their hands.
“What’s the lodging tax?” she asked. No one responded, and some laughed.
Baldacci, who received a standing ovation when he walked to the podium, said the report was about “our two most critical resources: people and our natural environment” and said its proposed $2 million Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Local and Regional Services echoed the efforts of his past years in office. He said the report’s recommendations could guide the state into a new economy.
But the proposed commission, tax increases and reductions, if implemented, would take time, Baldacci said.
“The citizens of Maine need to realize that it will take a sustained eight- to 10-year period,” Baldacci said.