LEWISTON — A forum featuring 19 candidates running for seats in the Maine Legislature touched on a wide range of issues during nearly two hours of discussion at the Franco Center on Wednesday.

Hosted by the Young Professionals of the Lewiston-Auburn Area, candidates running for House and Senate seats talked about everything from hiking the minimum wage in Maine to whether the state should roll back income-tax cuts enacted in 2011.

And if you haven’t heard already, the top issue for Maine this election cycle is jobs and the economy. Nearly all 19 candidates said that was the top problem for Maine.

Allowed one minute to answer, the candidates were brief and to the point, but some of the most heated responses and the differences between Republican and Democratic candidates were around the issues of tax and welfare reform.

David Sawicki, a Republican running for Auburn’s House District 64 seat, said he wouldn’t roll back the tax cuts that someone in the audience said led to a $400 million state budget shortfall.

Sawicki said the tax cuts were being reinvested in private-sector jobs such as those he’s added at his business, which grew from two employees to 50.

Others said the tax cuts had largely been passed down to local property-tax payers as state revenue-sharing to towns and cities was reduced to make up for the losses.

Sawicki is running against Democrat Bettyann Sheats who was also at the forum. Sheats said in her opening comments that many of the people she has talked to while campaigning have concerns about welfare, but it’s not usually mean-spirited. 

“They want welfare reform so that people have what they need, so the people that need it most are protected,” Sheats said. “They want access to affordable health care; they want people to be treated with respect regardless of the circumstances of their lives.” A West Point graduate and Army veteran, Sheats said her dog tags list only her blood type and her religious preference and not her party affiliation. 

“It does not say ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat.’ I want to serve Maine,” Sheats said.

The candidates also were quick to distinguish themselves on the minimum wage issue, with several Republican candidates saying they were opposed to hiking the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $9 or $10 an hour.  

Patti Gagne, a Republican candidate for Lewiston’s state Senate District 21 seat, said she opposed increasing the minimum wage because it would lead to businesses cutting jobs, which would create more unemployment.

Gagne also said she would support a kind of welfare reform that allowed people to see their benefits gradually reduced as they became more independent, versus a system that’s all or nothing.

Gagne’s Democratic opponent, state Rep. Nate Libby, who is also a Lewiston city councilor, has said he supported an incremental increase to the minimum wage in Maine, raising it to $9.50 an hour over three years.

Libby said a bill he co-sponsored in 2013 would have kept businesses from sheltering income from the state’s income tax by setting up offshore companies. Libby has noted the amount of revenue the state loses each year is estimated to be about $11 million.

“We are going to ask those companies to pay all of the taxes they owe and not a penny more,” Libby said. “We as local citizens and small-business owners all pay all of the taxes we owe and not a penny more.”

Voters also got a look at the differences between state Sen. John Cleveland, D-Auburn, and his Republican challenger, Eric Brakey, also of Auburn.

Cleveland said the single-most important issue facing the state of Maine was the difficulty people had in making ends meet.

“That is something I have seen for years and have been working on,” Cleveland said. He said he supports increasing the minimum wage “in a reasonable way.” He also said he would support expanding MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and would continue his support of public education funding.

Brakey said he had knocked on 6,000 doors in the district and what he’s hearing from people is they want welfare reform and they want a better environment for job creation, “so that our greatest export as a state is no longer our young people. That’s going to mean lowering taxes, cutting red tape and finding ways to bring down the cost of energy so we can create jobs here in Maine.”

State Sen. Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, who faces Democratic challenger Guy Desjardins, sheriff of Androscoggin County, in the race for Senate District 22, said he too was “very tired of watching the people who are my age taking their families and going across the Kittery bridge and never coming back, for greener pastures and better opportunities in other places.”

Mason said he had made only one promise over the two terms he’s served. “That is to make Augusta as inconsequential in your life as I can possibly make it.”

Desjardins said he believed the biggest issue facing Maine was good-paying jobs and access to affordable health care.

“There are no two bigger issues,” Desjardins said. He said he had heard about welfare reform from some. “But the people I’ve spoken to are worried about how they are going to make ends meet.”

Desjardins also said he supported increasing the minimum wage and that he did not believe even $10.10 an hour was a livable wage. He said any minimum wage hike would have to be enacted over time so as not to place too large a burden all at once on small businesses.

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