AUBURN — State legislative candidates in Androscoggin County were handed a series of tough questions during a two-hour forum, hosted by the Young Professionals of Lewiston-Auburn Area on Wednesday.
Fourteen candidates, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, running for six State House seats and three state Senate seats attended the event at the Hilton Garden Riverwatch Inn. Two candidates were absent.
Forum moderator and YPLAA Chairman Mike Malloy, a local attorney, dished out questions and pressed the candidates for complete answers when they wavered.
His questions ranged from how the candidates would solve a projected $753 million state budget shortfall to what programs they would support borrowing money for.
"The biggest concern thing that I hear when I knock on doors is that their representatives aren't representing them — they are on some kind of ideological trip," Bettyann Sheats, the Democratic challenger in House District 68, said.
Sheats, of Auburn and a West Point graduate and former Army helicopter test pilot, said the thing she learned at the military academy was that you need to "cooperate to graduate."
"The only way you can get through is if you work together," Sheats said.
Facing Republican incumbent state Rep. Mike Beaulieu, Sheats said what was missing in Augusta was the ability for lawmakers to put aside those ideologies and work together for Maine's people.
But Beaulieu, also of Auburn, like other incumbents on the panel — both Democrats and Republicans — touted his bipartisan accomplishments. Beaulieu said his track record of reaching across party lines and finding compromise was a long one.
He said among his biggest concerns was the stigma that Maine faced as a place that was unfriendly to business.
"We look at all kinds of things, we look at insurance rates, we look at the cost of energy, you look at infrastructure, you look at housing, all those things are incredibly important in order to get to where we all want to go," Beaulieu said. "There isn't anyone of us here that wants to work against that goal."
Answers on how they would settle the pending budget shortfall drew the sharpest contrast between competitors.
"The simple answer is the state spends too much money," said Tim Lajoie, the Republican challenger in Lewiston's House District 74. "And it pains me to hear that the last thing, that a state that has spent us into debt wants to take more of my tax money. I am in favor of tax cuts, I am in favor of returning money back to the taxpayer who earned it."
Facing Democratic incumbent state Rep. Peggy Rotundo, Lajoie said he has been a government employee for more than 20 years. "Believe me, there is money to be cut without hurting anyone."
Rotundo, said there was little doubt cuts would have to be made to balance the state's budget but she would be opposed to following a trend that simply transferred state funded expenses back to local property taxpayers.
"That's what's been happening over the past two years," Rotundo said. She also said there were more than $1 billion in business tax breaks that were no longer on the state's books. Many of those programs were put in place to stimulate job creation or business growth, but none of them have been fully reviewed for effectiveness, Rotundo said.
"We have no idea which of those programs are working and which ones aren't," she said. "I've been advocating for some time now for us to shine a light on them and see which ones are working and which ones are not. I'm not advocating we do away with them but we need to know which ones actually are producing jobs and which ones aren't."
Candidates also contemplated the hypothetical question of whether they would support a state mandate that all citizens have health insurance, similar to the mandate in the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — if that act was repealed.
Answers followed along party lines again, with most of the Democrats saying they would support a mandate for Maine, similar to the one enacted in Massachussetts under former Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican party's presidential candidate. The Republican candidates largely said they were opposed to a government mandate forcing citizens to buy anything.
Again, Rotundo and Lajoie seemed to sum up the sides of the issue.
"It's much more efficient when people have health care than when they are ending up in the emergency room and are getting their health care that way and then all those costs are passed on to people with private insurance," Rotundo said. "So we end up paying one way or the other. I think we need to look for efficient ways in which we can help people to obtain health care coverage."
Lajoie said he's opposed to any government mandate of anything.
"I look at government agencies on a whole and see they are largely in debt and are not efficiently run," Lajoie said. "I'm not in favor of handing over my health care or your health care to that sort of system. I am a firm believer in market solutions, I think the private sector is well-able to police itself and I think the government interferes with it too much and that affects the cost in the private sector. Market discipline would take care of it, if we would just get out of the way and let it."
Also attending the forum Wednesday were Senate District 15 candidates incumbent Republican Sen. Lois Snowe-Mello and her Democratic challenger John Cleveland; Senate District 16 incumbent Democratic Sen. Margaret Craven and her Republican challenger Robert Reed; Senate District 17 Democratic challenger Colleen Quint, House District 70 Republican incumbent Rep. Bruce Bickford and his Democratic challenger Wayen Werts, House District 72 Democratic incumbent Mike Carey, open House District 73 Democratic candidate Nathan Libby.
Absent were Sen. Garrett Mason, the Republican incumbent in Senate District 17; Rep. Brian Bolduc, the Democratic incumbent in House District 69; and Bolduc's Republican challenger Dennis Graise.