Even when the Democrats who want LePage’s job argue, they mostly agree
Good morning from Augusta where, lately, the Democratic candidates for governor are focusing on policy stances more than they are burning down each other’s campaigns. The primary race has grown scrappy at times as underdogs aimed attacks at the perceived front-runners, but that was not the case during an issues forum hosted Monday by WGAN.
Last week, the four Republican candidates agreed on most policy points during a WCSH debate that at times turned into a circular firing squad with Gorham businessman and front-runner Shawn Moody in the middle, deflecting attacks from his opponents. Though the Democrats largely aligned on their positions Monday, shades of differences emerged when they tried to provide details.
The Republicans are talking about reducing or completely eliminating Maine’s income tax, but the Democrats have different ideas about which taxes to raise. While none of the Democrats offered firm details on what would be an acceptable level of taxation, some — such as former legislators Mark Evesand Diane Russell, attorney Adam Cote and lobbyist Betsy Sweet — favor a more progressive income tax structure that takes a higher percentage from people who earn more money.
Eves, Russell and Sweet are clearly courting Democrats on the far left of the party’s ideological spectrum — the same voters who helped Bernie Sanders decisively win the 2016 presidential nominating caucuses in Maine.
Cote — who ran as a moderate in the 2008 1st Congressional District primary — is trying to thread the needle by courting these important voters in the primary without tilting so far left that it would harm his ability to portray himself as a less ideological political outsider in the general election. Citing his past experience on a school board, Cote focused his arguments on the local impact of policy debates that take place in Augusta.
“When Gov. [Paul] LePage talks about cutting so many taxes in Maine, all he really did was shift it,” said Cote.
State Sen. Mark Dion and Attorney General Janet Mills focused more on other taxes. “It’s not about the income taxes,” said Mills, who noted that Maine’s rate is already driving too many Mainers to Florida for half the year.
Dion was among the candidates calling for an expansion of the sales tax and state government funneling more money to municipalities through revenue sharing. He and Russell advocated for an increase in relief programs such as the homeowner circuit breaker program, which has been reduced under LePage — though not as much as he would have liked. Multiple efforts to expand Maine’s sales tax base — mostly led by Democrats — have failed during the past two decades.
Former Biddeford mayor Donna Dion carved out her own space on this issue, billing herself as “the money candidate” who is conservative on tax policy. “I’m always looking for the best way to lower taxes or the burden on individuals,” she said, without explaining how she would do so.
The Republican candidates are calling for major changes to Maine’s process of allowing citizen-initiated laws, but the Democrats are more mixed on the issue. Sweet blamed gridlock among the political parties in the Legislature and with LePage for breeding so many referendums in recent years, saying, “the system is broken when legislators don’t represent the people.”
Russell continued her ardent support for the current system while Mark Dionsaid even failed petition drives are important because they force policy conversations. He sparred briefly with Russell over the fact that legislators often have to fix flaws in referendum language before they can become law, saying he favors legislative hearings that improve the possibility of fixing details in the proposed bills before they go to the ballot.
Cote largely defended the current system and disagreed with the contention by some of the other candidates that Maine people regularly get it wrong at the ballot box or that out-of-state interests, such as supporters of failed casino referendums, wield too much power. “People in Maine know each other by two degrees of separation. If you’re stinking of out-of-state money, people can smell it out,” he said.
Eves and Russell basically agreed, with Eves arguing that the referendum process demonstrates that “the people are on the side of funding schools” and taxing upper earners at a higher rate. But Eves, who served as House speaker for four years, and Russell, who spent eight years as a legislator, did not address the often cited concern that citizens launch referendums because they believe lawmakers failed to enact laws or policies that represent the will of the people.
A question about whether Maine should expand its Medicaid program led to some criticism of Mills. She touted a previous proposal to route $35 millionin extra tobacco settlement money coming to Maine to cover initial expansion costs, but took some criticism for it on Monday. Sweet argued that the money should be deposited in the Fund for a Healthy Maine along with the majority of the other tobacco settlement money so it can be used to fund public health programs, which she said has been “decimated” under LePage.
Eves, who has been the most vocal opponent of Mills in the primary campaign, agreed. “You played right into the governor’s hands,” Eves said. “That $35 million needs to be used to build out a better public health system.”
Throughout the hour-long forum, Mills tried to strike a balance on her front-runner status — joking with her opponents about some of their past efforts to chip into her perceived lead while trying to reinforce the notion that she would be the party’s best general election candidate by touting the fact that she has won legislative elections in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, where Democrats have slipped badly during the past decade.
The candidates were asked who they would list second on their ranked-choice ballots, but most wouldn’t answer. Russell said she’d choose one of the other women on the ballot and Mills said she’s “waiting to be convinced.” Eves, still trying to whittle support from Mills, said his second choice would be Sweet.
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