LEWISTON — Candidates hoping to win a seat or re-election to the Maine Legislature later this year made one of their first public forum appearances during a Maine People’s Alliance forum at the Lewiston Public Library on Thursday.

The two-hour event was dominated by Democratic incumbents, but at least one Republican and one independent candidate joined the group to offer some diversity of views on key issues, ranging from the expansion of MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, to whether the state should raise its minimum wage to $10 an hour.

Questions for the candidates were determined by the audience, which worked in small groups to come up with specific yes-or-no questions prior to the start of the forum.

Candidates were given 30 seconds to say why they answered the way they did.

Every Democrat on the panel said he or she believed in raising the minimum wage, although state Rep. Wayne Werts, D-Auburn, said he believed the state ought to carefully consider whether a blanket approach to boosting its lowest wage from $7.50 an hour to $10 an hour would be the right move for all small businesses.

“I don’t want to see us take a brush and go across all workers and expect the same result,” Werts said. “I think there are some small businesses that would really be adversely affected, so I think we really need to study it.”

Independent candidate Mark Cayer, the Lewiston City Council president running for the city’s House District 61 seat, said he didn’t support raising the minimum wage.

“What I would support is incentives for both small and large businesses to pay living wages,” Cayer said.

He reiterated an earlier point he made that the biggest issue for Maine was providing its citizens with the education and job training that would allow them to obtain the skills for well-paying jobs.

Republican candidate David Sawicki, running in an open race for Auburn’s House District 64 seat against Democrat Bettyann Sheats, said he believed the state should evaluate raising its minimum wage, but he wasn’t sure that “$10 an hour is the magic number.”

Sawicki rattled off prices for everyday items, including a gallon of milk, a pound of hamburger and a gallon of gas. He said the minimum wage wasn’t keeping up with inflation, but any upward adjustment had to be balanced with what a hike would do to overall employment levels.

“I do believe it is justified to take a look at adjusting the minimum wage,” Sawicki said.

Sheats said she supported raising the minimum to $10 an hour because it would put more expendable money into working people’s pockets and they would spend it locally.

“What goes around comes around,” Sheats said. “We need to raise the minimum wage so more people have the ability to spend so we can encourage our economy.”

She said too many of the available jobs in Maine are minimum-wage jobs, so it is illogical to just suggest people earning the minimum wage go find better jobs.

“Unless you raise the minimum wage for those jobs, there are just not enough other jobs for people to go and get,” Sheats said.

Democrats also largely agreed that they would support expanding MaineCare and would agree to accept federal funds to do so.

Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins, running as a Sabattus Democrat for the state Senate District 22 seat against state Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, said he supports the expansion of MaineCare and the extension of the program to cover inmates at the county jail. That expansion would save Androscoggin County taxpayers $500,000 a year on health care for jail inmates, he said.

During his tenure in the state Senate, Mason has been an opponent of expanding the program.

Sawicki said he didn’t support expanding MaineCare because the last time the state expanded the program, it ended up owing state hospitals more than $400 million in unpaid bills for Medicaid patients.

Cayer said he also would not support expanding MaineCare as a straight expansion of the state’s program but would have supported an alternative expansion offered during the last Legislative session that involved using federal funds to buy private insurance plans for those eligible to receive MaineCare.

Incumbent lawmakers on the panel said they largely voted for the expansion in the past and would do so again.

Others, including state Rep. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, who is running for the state Senate this year against Republican Patti Gagne, said he believed in universal health care. Libby said he was eager to see how a single-payer universal system adopted by the state of Vermont worked out.

He said he was hopeful Democrats would have someone in the governor’s office who is interested in “going down that road, too.”

Incumbent Republican Gov. Paul LePage has been an opponent of expanding MaineCare.

Twelve candidates turned out for the forum, including state Reps. Peggy Rotundo and Mike Lajoie, both Lewiston Democrats, and state Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn.

Democratic candidates Gina Melaragno, running for Auburn’s House District 62 seat; Heidi Brooks, running for Lewiston’s House District 61 seat; and Jared Golden, running for Lewiston’s House District 60 seat, also participated in the forum.

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