Maine GOP candidates similar, yet different

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The four Republicans running to replace Gov. Paul LePage are all vowing to carry on his legacy, but they are distinguished by some subtle and not-so-subtle differences in how they would do that.

Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, state Sen. Garrett Mason of Lisbon, former Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew of South China and entrepreneur and businessman Shawn Moody of Gorham sound a lot like LePage when they talk about things like taxes, welfare reform and Medicaid expansion.

But they would accomplish their goals in different ways, and some have more specific visions than others of what they think Maine needs from its next chief executive.

Here’s where the four Republicans stand on several of the key issues the next governor will confront.

 Medicaid expansion

“I will put forward a budget immediately to repeal it,” Mayhew said of Medicaid expansion, which voters approved at the ballot box in November 2017. Expansion would bring health care to an estimated 70,000 low-income Mainers under the MaineCare program, which is funded with federal and state dollars, but opponents say the state’s share will be far more than what’s being estimated and expansion would push people from private insurance plans to the public dole.

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During his first two years in office, while he enjoyed Republican majorities in the Legislature, LePage dramatically scaled back the program, saying it should be constrained to only the most needy Mainers, including the elderly and disabled. It’s a theme Republican candidates are sticking with, saying the state can’t afford the estimated cost of $50 million to $100 million a year — even though expansion would draw down some $500 million in federal matching funds.

“We are prioritizing for people like me, childless adults, over people that are on wait lists,” said Mason, the youngest candidate in the race, “There are people on waiting lists that aren’t getting services and we are rushing to expand Medicaid for people who could otherwise maybe go get a job, with an employer that has a medical plan and could be on private insurance.” 

Fredette said he is also concerned about the costs of expansion. He said one way to fund an expansion would be to limit it and lower eligibility levels to 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. He suggested pushing more people toward health insurance exchange programs set up under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Moody said he didn’t support the expansion and would oppose funding it with any method that involved raising taxes or taking from the state’s so-called “rainy-day” savings account. 

All of the candidates, including Moody, pointed to the state’s past experience with expansions of the health care program, noting it often caused gaping state budget shortfalls and left the state saddled with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to hospitals that provided care to MaineCare recipients.  

“We’ve been down that road before,” Moody said, “and it didn’t work.”  

Moody said he believed the ACA was designed to be “too big to fail but is collapsing under its own weight,” suggesting states that have expanded under the promise of federal funds could be left holding the full tab for expansion.

Taxes

Cutting taxes has been a central theme for LePage, who managed to lower Maine’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.15 percent during his two terms and often spoke of eliminating the tax entirely.

All four candidates said they would work to continue that trend.

“We can eliminate the income tax in Maine, we absolutely can,” Mason said, “but part of that is you want to shift part of that tax burden to out-of-staters who come to Maine to enjoy Maine in the summertime, those 40 million people that come here and spend money on services and on buying stuff — it can be done and it should be done but it needs to be done strategically.”

He said any state revenue surpluses should go to either the rainy-day fund or to immediate reduction of the income tax.

Both Moody and Mayhew also said they would strongly support continuing to cut Maine’s income tax. 

Moody said he has a goal of lowering the top marginal rate to 5 percent rather than eliminating the tax entirely. He said he would try to remove redundancies in state government to save money and “lead by example” for local municipal government and school districts to encourage them to also consolidate more.

Consolidating functions doesn’t necessarily mean poorer-quality service, he said. Pointing to practices in his own company, Moody said he aims for “continuous improvement.”

Mayhew said eliminating the income tax would not necessarily require an increase or broadening of the state sales tax to make up for lost revenue.

“I believe there is still wasteful spending in government, unnecessary spending in government that could support further reductions in the income tax, and ultimately we need to factor in the increased economic activity that is generated when you eliminate the income tax, which would continue to support the basic functions of government,” Mayhew said.

Home care ballot measure

All four candidates oppose the ballot proposal that voters will consider in November to tack a 3.8 percent tax on income above $128,400, which is the threshold above which no Social Security employment tax is now collected. Employers and employees would split the 3.8 percent tax, which would generate an estimated $310 million for so-called “universal home care” for the elderly and disabled.

Mayhew said she is telling people to vote the measure down. She pointed out that as DHHS commissioner, she submitted budgets that would have increased services for elderly and disabled Mainers, but lawmakers rejected the proposals because they included a decrease in spending on other DHHS programs.

“They accused me of pitting one group against another, and that’s called prioritizing; everyone has to do it, in their personal lives, in their businesses,” Mayhew said. “If you can’t pay your rent you don’t go out and get a more expensive cable package.”

All four candidates see the home care question as an example of how well-funded, out-of-state liberal groups are using Maine’s initiative and referendum process to promote their agendas.

“Is there a need for folks who are senior citizens to be checked on in their home?” Fredette asked. “The answer is ‘yes.’ But is it right to tax not only individuals, but (also) employers to fund it?”

Mason said the home care ballot measure was another example of the Maine People’s Alliance, the left-leaning group behind the proposal, trying to “tax their way to a socialist utopia.”

He said even Democrats were not out trying to sell the ballot measure. “There is no gung-ho support for that referendum among the Democrats; that alone should tell you where this referendum ought to go,” Mason said.

Moody said he would support changing the laws around ballot petitions to make getting on the ballot more difficult. Reforms he would seek include a ban on paying people to collect voter signatures and a requirement that signatures be collected in equal portions in both of the state’s congressional districts.

“I would also utilize the governor’s office and the media, to do a better job at educating Mainers so they can see the other side of these ballot questions,” Moody said. “So you can know exactly what these policies are moving forward and you can make good decisions.”

 

Education funding

State government shut down for four days last July during a legislative impasse over a tax surcharge on higher-income households that would funnel $300 million a year into public schools. Lawmakers finally killed the surcharge and instead allocated about $160 million in new school funding over the two-year budget cycle.

But the proper level of state spending on schools remains unsettled, and all four Republican candidates said they had ideas for improving educational funding.

Fredette said he believes more regionalization of school districts is key, and as governor he would try to create incentives by offering new school buildings to districts that agreed to consolidate.

Mason said he would push for a statewide teachers contract, which would improve schools across Maine and save money by leveling the playing field for teacher salaries.

“What I have seen, even in my own town –  towns like Lisbon – is they train the teachers in good schools and then (the teachers) go someplace else that pays more money after their probationary period is over,” Mason said. “So by leveling the playing field in salary and not letting each individual district decide how much they are going to pay, you make it better for school kids and you make it easier on school districts because they are not managing the human resource, payroll end of things because we would be doing it at the state level.”

Mayhew said she wanted to reframe the question on school funding to focus on educational outcomes.

“This is not just about money,” she said. “We are in the top tier of states in terms of our per-student spending, but we are not in the top tier of states in terms of our outcomes. We need a laser beam focus on improving our reading scores, our math scores, science scores, so our kids can finish school, be independent adults and find great-paying jobs. We need to support our teachers and the work that needs to go on in those classrooms with that clarity of focus.”

Moody said he would look to save money within school systems by eliminating redundant functions while seeking more regionalization and consolidations.

“We are going to make it cool to be frugal again in the state of Maine – resourceful,” he said.

 

Workforce development

With an aging workforce and one of the lowest unemployment rates in history, Maine employers are struggling to fill jobs, even as young college graduates leave the state for more opportunities elsewhere.

The candidates offered varying proposals on what they would try to do to help, but all four said they support legal immigration to Maine.

“It’s what America was built on,” Moody said.

Moody, who has served on the board of trustees for both the University of Maine System and Maine Community College System for the last four years, said he’s gained expertise in workforce development issues.

“I would use that knowledge and experience for programs and curriculum that we use for pulling industry in to help us, to create programs that align with what employers’ needs are right here in the state; that’s critical,” Moody said. He also said he would look for ways to recruit native Mainers back to the state.

He and Mayhew also said they would seek to change the laws that limit teens from being able to work some jobs.

Fredette said he would put more focus on attracting legal immigrants to Maine, much as French-Canadians, including his own ancestors, were drawn to the state in the last century to take jobs in the booming shoe and textile industries. He said public education in both high schools and postsecondary schools needs to be geared to the current economy, to develop the workers the state needs in a variety of career fields, from health care to construction trades. 

Other candidates echoed that view.

“A top priority for my administration would be aligning our educational system to be responsive to those workforce needs,” Mayhew said, “to be nimble and to be responsive. Our educational system needs to be encouraging vocational training, not treating it like it’s a pathway for only those who aren’t capable of going on to college.”

The candidates also said they would also maintain LePage’s focus on requiring those welfare recipients to work, volunteer or be enrolled in an education or job-training program.

Mason said more high schools in Maine should integrate career and technical education programs under the same roof as their college-preparatory programs.

“The model of separating those two types of schools is outdated,” he said.

Mason added that Maine also needs to do a better job of anticipating future workforce demands, so efforts can be made to attract people to specific training or education programs that will lead to employment.

“We have to go out into the world and find opportunity for Maine people and sell the story of Maine and why it’s a great place to do business,” Mason said.

 

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