Five candidates for the Maine House and Senate discussed a number of issues facing the state during the first night of a two-part candidates’ debate in front of a crowd of approximately 40 people at the Mobius Center in Damariscotta on Oct. 11.
Sherwood Olin, editor of The Lincoln County News, served as moderator for the evening’s two-hour debate and brought candidates back to three main, contentious questions among Republicans and Democrats.
The debate, which stretched just past 9 p.m., focused primarily on taxes, employment, and healthcare. Prompted by questions from Olin and from the audience, candidates also discussed the deterioration and funding for the repair of state roads, citizen referendum policies, the unfunded liability of Maine’s retirement community, and the task of legislators to make tough decisions.
Candidates participating in the Columbus Day forum included House District 52 Representative Lisa Miller (D-Somerville), her opponent, Deborah Sanderson (R-Chelsea), District 20 State Senator David Trahan (R-Waldoboro), his opponent Chris Johnson (D-Somerville), and District 19 State Senator Seth Goodall (D-Richmond).
Goodall’s opponent, Bath Republican David Kaler did not respond to invitations to appear. District 20 Independent candidate Dan Schweitzer (Westport Island) was out of the county on business and unable to appear.
In addition to the many residents who came from Boothbay Harbor to Waldoboro and towns in between, a number of other candidates and community leaders appeared at the debate.
Even as the Republicans and Democrats parted on this issue, all candidates said at one point flailing government programs need additional scrutiny.
The first to answer Olin’s questions, Sanderson calls for cuts in spending to balance the state budget deficit, which one candidate pointed out is a glaring $800 million.
“I don’t think broadening the tax base or increasing the tax base is the answer,” Sanderson said and suggested there should be an independent audit of state governments to pinpoint redundancies and inefficiencies. Prompted by Olin as to where taxes should be cut, Sanderson said the answers would be determined by the independent audit. She also suggested cutbacks in social services.
In line with Sanderson’s comments, Trahan said that as a leader of a government oversight committee, he believes in strategic cuts and that the state’s welfare system needs to be reformed. Trahan said he led an effort to repeal sales tax legislation (LD 1495), as he believed it negatively affected the elderly who are living on fixed incomes and the working class.
“State government is very good at generating revenue,” he said, referencing a long list of statutory changes made by the Maine legislature. He added there are a lot of departments in state government that are top-heavy.
The physical distance between Trahan and his opponent, Johnson, did not match their opposing viewpoints on taxes and other issues. Johnson countered Trahan’s comments and mentioned a 14 percent state revenue shortfall. Johnson also said state spending levels have been rolled back to match what the state was spending in 2004.
“We are in the middle of a significant recession,” Johnson said, adding that his reason for his support of the overturned sales tax legislation was due to the fact that state revenue is tied to two things: income tax and sales tax.
His comments were later supported by Sen. Goodall, who said the most important aspect of the legislation was to solve an overly high income tax rating. Goodall suggested lower income tax rates would help draw business into the state.
While Johnson acknowledged that not all parts of the legislation were good, he did not think it should have been tossed out entirely. He maintained it is important to support the essential concept of restructuring how taxes are raised to support needed state services.
“By not making changes to our tax structure, we are now pushing more of the cost of what we provide as state and local governments onto property taxes and that has the least correlation to people’s ability to pay,” he said, referencing previous discussions with various town selectmen.
Olin once again asked candidates what they would do to lesson the tax burden on Maine citizens. Roughly 20 minutes into the discussion and there were still no simple answers.
Candidates parted on their views regarding the cost of welfare, which Trahan and Sanderson suggested could be cut. Trahan referenced a report from conservative think tank, The Maine Heritage Policy Center, which claimed that there are 391,000 people in the state accessing welfare programs. These numbers were disputed by some audience members, who said the report had been debunked.
Trahan said it was more important for those in legislature to focus on economic development and work toward getting people to be self-reliant instead of disputing the accuracy of a report.
Johnson later argued against the suggestion to make cuts in social services programs, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families). He said those in legislature need to look beyond pinpointing waste in government programs and create efficiency in state government.
“We have to be very lazer-like about where we are going to find savings in welfare and Medicaid. There are places we can do that,” Rep. Miller said. She added, “Welfare itself is not going to fill in an $800 million to a billion dollar deficit.”
Trahan mentioned his work to bring health care education to Lincoln County, using a community college nursing program at Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta. He added that the tax reform legislation was a job killer, because it would have generated more paperwork and added costs to small businesses.
“Let’s not generate policies that in a down economy are going to make our businesses struggle even further,” he said.
Miller said the legislature can develop infrastructure, which includes educational facilities and support. She said the government can nudge changes in infrastructure, which she said also includes utilities, with bonding funds.
“The government has roles to play, but they have limits,” she said.
Goodall, in agreement with Miller, said job creation would require a multi-faceted approach focused on education. He also pointed to the process of alternative energy, such as off-shore renewable energy, to attract more industry to the state.
“Now granted, that’s not going to happen tomorrow, but if we keep putting one foot in front of the other, five, 10 and 15 years out we’ll have an industry here,” he said.
Trahan said it is the private sector that creates jobs, not the government. He suggests less government intervention and also for the state to revisit fair trade policies.
Sanderson agreed with the other candidates regarding the importance of higher education in the state. She also is interested in working on a tax structure that is more business-friendly.
While candidates said they support the process of getting questions on a ballot, which includes the gathering of signatures, some said they felt nervous about people getting paid. Trahan said it is important for citizens to petition against legislative actions he said are influenced by special interest groups.
“When we are afraid to have citizens participate in our government through the referendum process, we’ve got some real problems,” Trahan said.
Miller agreed the process should be in place, but the fact that some signature gatherers and others involved are paid makes her nervous. Johnson, in agreement with Miller, said signature gatherers should not be paid.
“I’d really like to see people not get paid per signature,” Miller said. “Let’s make it truly grass-roots.”
“I think it is going to evolve,” Miller said, also indicating a convergence of the current program with the national health care program.
Asked what they would do to lower health care costs for residents, Sanderson responded by saying she would support Rep. Jon MacKane’s initiative to allow people to seek other sources outside of the state. The numbers alone, she said, would lower the burden of health care costs across the state.
“I would like to see Dirigo go away. It has been a huge drain on Maine taxpayers,” Sanderson said, acknowledging that the program was a well-intentioned try.
Under the federal health reform, there will be regional health options, said Johnson, and disagreed with the notion that Dirigo has been a drain on the state. He said Dirigo countered the high costs associated with unpaid emergency room services through preventative health care.
Costs for private health care coverage are through the roof, Sanderson countered, because hospitals are trying to recoup losses from reimbursement rates, which she said are considerably lower than actual costs.
Trahan, who serves on two hospital boards, followed up on her comments by adding that the state is not reimbursing hospitals properly. In response to Olin’s question, Trahan said he has helped to lower health care costs through a medical errors program. Generating programs to train new health care workers attracts more young people to the area, he said.
Goodall, though he acknowledged the Dirigo health plan was not as successful as intended, has realized savings in health care. Some 12,000 people have saved in costs through the government program, he said. He also applauded the fact that Maine covers so much of its population.
He said the question of allowing people to shop across state lines for health insurance is complicated, even though the federal program will expand coverage opportunities, he said.
“We have certain values in this state to make sure that (there are) no lifetime caps,” Goodall said, adding that the state wants to make sure patients are not bumped off their insurance due to pre-existing conditions, factors which will roll into the federal plan when it begins in 2014.
Miller, eager to speak on the issue before moving on to other topics, commented on the difficulty in tracking medical care costs and where the payments are going.
“Nobody really pays the costs,” she said, referring to health insurance companies and government programs alike, the members of which negotiate payments.
In response to Olin’s original question, Miller said she sponsored legislation to help track medical errors, called “health info net”. She said she also sponsored establishing a public health system in the state to cut down on costs associated with tobacco use, alcoholism and other health-related issues.
Trahan nodded his head as Miller stated that the practice of medicine has changed and is pushing people more toward using emergency services. The situation is complicated and needs further inquiry, Miller said, in response to a comment from the floor. Speaking from the audience, Boothbay Harbor resident Jerry Topinka suggested hospital emergency rooms ought to have clinics for non-life threatening cases.
Due to a federal law, Miller said patients who arrive in an emergency room can’t be sent elsewhere for treatment. It would also add another cost to hospitals, she said.
The discussion, stretching past 9 p.m., also focused on issues related to the unfunded liability of the state’s retirement community and a question of where funds can be acquired to fill the gaps.
In one way or another, candidates found there are government programs that need careful scrutiny, in addition to finding ways to increase employment prospects, reducing poverty, increasing access to healthcare and finding a solution to a prosperous economy through taxation and/or restructuring of government programs. They each offered potential solutions to these issues and the Monday night debate contributed to the overall discussion over who can best serve voter interests.