AUGUSTA – Although four candidates for governor were on the stage during Tuesday night’s television debate, viewers might have had the impression it was a two-way race after independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill repeatedly challenged Democratic Gov. John E. Baldacci on tax policy and other issues.
While her opponents chose less confrontational strategies, Merrill addressed Baldacci directly on more than four occasions during the one-hour debate.
“Governor, in fairness, your school funding formula has threatened Maine’s small schools more than anything in a long, long time,” Merrill said. “It’s because it’s a one-size-fits-all school funding formula. … Frankly it is a fundamentally flawed program.”
Baldacci chose not to respond personally to Merrill, saying that after changing the school funding formula for the first time in nearly 25 years, it was acknowledged “adjustments need to be made.”
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that you aren’t going to want to make adjustments and, frankly, they’re working towards that,” Baldacci said, adding schools need to take a broader approach to community education with broadband Internet access that can assist local economies.
Republican candidate Chandler Woodcock agreed with Merrill, saying the essential programs and services formula for schools was incomplete when Baldacci presented it to the Legislature.
“We were told it was incomplete but to not worry, ‘have faith, it’s going to be fine,”‘ Woodcock said. “Well, it wasn’t fine.”
Green Independent Party candidate Pat LaMarche countered that there was no high-speed Internet technology outside of the state’s major business hubs for schools to extend to local businesses.
“When we talk about relying on this infrastructure for our salvation, we’re pretending that we have one – outside of a couple of major urban centers,” she said. “We need to make real investments in this sort of thing.”
Tuesday night’s event, televised live on WCSH-TV6 and WLBZ-TV2, was the first of two statewide gubernatorial forums that will be aired in Maine before the election Nov. 7. The Maine Public Broadcasting Network will broadcast the second live debate at 8 p.m. Nov. 1.
Although MPBN’s forum will feature all five candidates, last night’s event co-sponsored by the Maine Chamber of Commerce and WCSH-TV6 and WLBZ-TV2 did not include candidate Phillip Morris NaPier because he was polling only at about 1 percent in a recent station survey.
Merrill’s supporters maintain the candidate hopes to surge ahead in the last two weeks of the campaign. Her performance during the debate seemed to reflect a desire to demonstrate a passion for her race, particularly when she confronted Baldacci on the Dirigo health plan.
Emphasizing that the governor’s Dirigo health program had attracted only 12,000 participants, Merrill reminded Baldacci he had said he would include Maine state employees in the Dirigo plan to make it large enough for health insurance premiums to be affordable. State employees rejected the proposal, and the governor was forced to move the program along without them.
“[Dirigo’s] not big enough, and the health insurance premiums are not affordable for people who don’t qualify for the subsidies,” Merrill said. “Would you be willing to put the state employees in it now, governor?”
Baldacci essentially ignored Merrill’s question and instead cited a report from the Commonwealth Fund’s National Scorecard that he said listed Maine as having the highest rate of adults ages 18-64 who did not have health care in 1999 to 2000.
“In 2004 to 2005, Maine is [now] one of the best states in New England after being one of the worst,” Baldacci said. “Dirigo works. It saves money. It saves lives, and a commission is now looking at ways to expand this.”
“That’s frankly because close to one in four Mainers is currently in the MaineCare system,” Merrill said. “That is a system that is paid for by the state, and that is a statistic that should worry all of us because it is so expensive.”
This time Baldacci did respond, arguing MaineCare was not paid for by the state, but was a federal eligibility enrollment program funded by federal and state resources.