Maine Senate District 17 candidates Jan Collins (D) and Russell Black (R) along with Maine House District 117 candidates Fran Head (R) and Stephanie LeBlanc (D) and Maine House District 112 candidates Cynthia Soma-Hernandez (D) and Thomas Skolfield (R) were welcomed to the Rangeley Public Library on the evening of October 24th toparticipate in a candidate forum.

The approximate dozen locals that were in attendance were able to meet with the candidates under casual circumstances before the question and answer period began. After opening statements that lasted about fifteen minutes, candidates answered a variety of questions posed by the chosen moderator, local Brian St. Louis.

While some questions were prepared in advance, others were written up by those in the audience. Index cards and pencils were distributed so that questions could be passed in to be included upon arrival. This allowed a chance for voters to get their specific questions answered.

Unfortunately there was not nearly enough time to go through the amount of questions that were prepared in advance or handed in by the members of the audience. Leaving room for both opening statements and closing remarks, each candidate had two minutes to answer each question. Therefore only about half of the questions had time to be answered.

Moderator St. Louis varied the order in which the candidates answered which allowed for some candidates to be informed by what answers came before them, while at times coming in early to set the tone.

Mixed in with the serious topics for discussion, all candidates were very friendly and respectful to each other. In addition there were many laughs throughout the forum.

From the several audience members I spoke to there seemed to be an even mix of people who had come not knowing who to vote for, to those that were confident of who to cast their votes with but wanted to just see and hear the candidates in person.

The following is the first of the four prepared questions that were asked along with the complete unedited transcribed answers.

Prepared Question # 1:

Some have said that the Maine’s citizen-initiated referendum process is flawed and should be changed. Others believe that the legislature should be bound to implement any initiatives passed by the people. What is your position on Maine’s referendum process?

Russell Black

I think that the referendum process is important and it’s in our constitution, but the way that the referendum system is working now is out of state money is coming in and driving certain referendums and those referendums their doing that because partly is because we have such a low advertising base that they can come in here and experiment with us and a lot of them wind up being unconstitutional. The one that’s before us now, question one is unconstitutional, we’ve had questions about some of the other ones, some other ones are still in limbo, the marijuana referendum for instance was 28 pages long and it took the legislature over a year with a new standing committee to straighten that out and people still didn’t understand what they were voting for with that bill. So I think I would like to see the referendum process go back to where the referendum is giving to legislature, it goes before a committee of jurisdiction, it’s vetted, and then it’s put out to the people to be voted on.

Jan Collins

I feel strongly that the formers of our constitution for the state of Maine acted very well in setting up the referendum process and the reason why they did it is because they understood fully that sometimes government does not represent the people. Unfortunately the legislature has not been keeping up with the will of the people, and as a result of that the people have had to take government into their own hands in the form of referendums. The referendums, many of the referendums that have passed in the last few years by the majority of the people of Maine, and the people of Maine are not dupes. I think it is disingenuous to say that the people do not understand what they’re voting for. We are not dumb. We know what we’re talking about and the reason why we are passing these is the government has failed to do its part for the people. One, it has failed to provide adequate funding for schools. That failure has most affected us here in rural Maine. Again, they have failed to put in place healthcare and again that has failed us here in rural Maine more than any other part of the sate. This healthcare referendum is absolutely flawed, I totally agree with that but it’s here because the legislature has failed to deal with the fact that Maine is the oldest state in the nation. That we are short on elder housing, we are short on nursing homes, and we are not adequately funding those nursing homes that we do have and some of those are closing and the ones that are closing, you guessed it, they’re in rural Maine. So, all of the failures of the legislature fall heavily on us here in rural Maine. If the legislature does they’re job there will many, fewer referendums because the people will not have to take the government into their own hands.

Stephanie LeBlanc

I do not believe the citizen referendum initiative system is flawed. It’s been a part our constitution for over a century now. What I believe is flawed is what happens with citizen referendums when they get into the legislature and then land on the governor’s desk as we’ve seen over the years with multiple referendums that have passed by well over fifty percent such as Medicaid expansion, our school funding bills, our Ranked Choice Voting. I believe as a leadership entity the legislature when the voice of the people has been heard and the will of the people has come through in a majority vote it’s up to the legislature to find collaboration and compromise to be able to enact the will of the people and not keep that from getting stuck in the legislative process. The whole reason why we’ve seen such an increase in citizen initiatives is because the legislature has not moved fast enough to address various citizen concerns that need movement and need bill and policy because their not moving through the legislature and passed the governor’s desk at a pace that helps feel like things are being addressed and we’re attempting to make positive change for our communities and our people.

Fran Head

Well I think there is a flaw in this particular referendum vote, the way that we do it, the citizens’ initiative is something I know that is in our constitution but it doesn’t allow for public hearings. Did you get a chance to go testify and hear anybody’s view about the particular referendum that we’re trying to initiate? Probably not, and that to me is part of what the problem is. There’s no public hearings to allow people to listen to views from other people and understand them and the legal issues that aren’t dealt with before this referendum is signed and the way that it’s collected the votes, the signatures are collected, maybe that’s a little flawed too, but we can’t prove that. And there needs to be some legal things that happen before these things could be put in place. You don’t just say, ‘We want this’, without some kind of legal things to happen and it just needs to be adjusted to openness. More so than rural Maine suffers because we don’t get people out handing out these signature sheets and get paid to do that. People get paid to get those signatures. Some of them get paid very well. And not by other Maine people, and that’s a problem. And I feel like it’s a big problem. And I think if we that if we had public hearings like they do in the legislature, that we could solve some of the problems. If you don’t bring them to us, if you don’t bring them to us in a bill form, then we’re not sure what you really want. And you could tell us you want marijuana legalized and here we are. Here we are. We had to spend a whole year on a 28 page referendum and that’s not, that’s not how it should be working.

Thomas Skolfield

I basically agree with my good friend Representative Black and Representative Head. There needs to be some improvement. I think the citizens’ initiative is a fine endeavor. However, all you need to do is set up at the Maine mall for a few weeks with a clip board and collect 61,000 some odd signatures and you can get whatever you want on a citizens’ initiative that following year. Not a hard thing to do- especially if you’ve got some out of state money paying for that. Maine, I hate to say it folks but we’re a cheap date. Things can happen here in the state of Maine that couldn’t happen in any other state because folks can spend the money and get us on the ballot here in Maine. Ten percent of the last gubernatorial election is what it requires. 61,000 plus signatures- and they can all be collected from Cumberland County. Now if you think that’s fair, then you’re, then that’s fine, but I believe that there are an equal amount of citizen’s signatures should be obtained not only from Congressional District 1, which is that strip along the coast, as well as Congressional District 2 which is the vast big chunk of the state of Maine. So I think that we can do better. I think that we need to include people up here in that citizen’s initiative and not just the folks in Cumberland County. So, that’s how I feel. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have citizen’s initiatives but I think we can do better.

Cynthia Soma-Hernandez

Well this is awkward (laughs), I like what he says but I know in my heart that it’s a pretty good idea when you live in a democracy to be able to say what you think and vote on it and have a legislator and legislature that’s committed to doing what the majority of the will of the people wants. So, I don’t know, I was in law school for a while, I couldn’t afford to go but one thing I learned was to understand what the other side thinks. If you understand what they think you can perhaps convince them that you’re right and they’re wrong and we need to move forward and that’s really what progress is all about. So, I look at the situation, I turn to my neighbors, I don’t know about you guys but I’m looking everywhere and people are saying, ‘I’m trying to make money but I can’t. I can’t find a job.’ You know, and there, the possibility is out there to cure so many of our societies’ ills. If we had a viable industry for CBD (Cannabidiol), we could join John Boehner, you know, who was one of the republicans, a leader in the country, and we could become wealthy and self sufficient like we used to be. You know, we could, we could make CBD become something that is, that is a huge item that we could sell out of state as well, as so many other industries that are related to the hemp industry. So I think it’s very important to look at the future. The research that I’ve done indicates, and I see no reason why we can’t look ten years down the future, and look toward having our technicians in the state of Maine and our young people build, with a 3D printer, automobiles that I like to refer to as hemp automobiles- Hempmobiles. It’s possible, it’s the future. They’re having symposiums all of the country on it now. And I think that we need to look at heating fuel, and insulation, and things of that nature.

The following are the other questions that had time to be answered during the forum. For excerpts from those answers please visit our website:

Prepared Question #2:

Maine has an aging population and a shrinking labor pool. How would you address the need for more skilled workers?

Stephanie LeBlanc

Well, we clearly have a major struggle with human capital in this state and more particularly I would say in our rural communities, where we’re all representing. I know personally I have at any given time three to five full time benefited positions, open, that I can’t fill because there’s not a skilled or educated workforce. The most recent community health needs assessments indicated that Oxford County, which is the county I would be representing, is now the, has the least amount of Associate Degree education hire 25 year old and older individuals. Meaning out of every county in the state we have the fewest amount of educated citizens. So what I think we need to do is we start first with our children. We need to look at a whole child approach to our public education system. Insure that we are funding our schools up to the fifty-five percent that our schools are supposed to be funded up to so that they can provide quality education that’s not based on zip code. I believe we then need to look at our current workforce and figure out how we can encourage and inspire our working age individuals that are already in the workforce to expand their skill sets and develop either certain certification programs, or enhance their skill sets so they can move into higher wage jobs so their not having to piecemeal two to three jobs to make a livable wage and pay their bills. And then I think we need to move into incentivizing our state schools for local students, to keep our young and local talent here, providing loan reimbursement programs to attract young talent to come to the state of Maine, to raise their families, start careers and build into our economy that way. And we also need to diversify our education streams. I think we need to take a deep look at our technical and trade schools and ensure we’re creating systems of education that provide a diverse pathway for education and certification.

Fran Head

Well education of course and the offering of affordable trade and technical and vocational schools and offering hands on training and many high schools offer the low level trade training. In my opinion that level should be raised to a much higher level and I agree completely with Stephanie about the need for that to happen and affordable education that doesn’t send a person out with a fifty thousand dollar debt for their education and doesn’t allow them to make a living here in Maine with that kind of a debt and a livable wage that offers them a nice home, that children with things that children require and that’s what I think about that is that we need to just keep on raising the level our educational system.

Cynthia Soma-Hernandez

Well as I said, I worked in Newark and everyone knows what happened in Puerto Rico and everyone knows what’s going on down in the border. There’s a whole lot of people out there that need jobs, you know, and it wouldn’t hurt our gene pool any to have some new blood up here. So uh, that’s a novel approach to life but I tell it like it is you know. I taught in Newark for twenty-five years and there is a whole lot of people that need help out there- they need jobs. We need to create jobs up in here. And we have it, we have farmland. At the AG trade show last year, this year, 2018, the highest attendance symposium was on industrialized hemp. Farmers want to make money. When I talk about it in the paper mill people get excited. People in the paper mill are like ‘Yes! Why isn’t the state doing this?’ Yes, why don’t we look at hemp? Why don’t we look at home heating fuel? Why don’t we look at these new technologies? Why don’t we train our young people to operate 3D printing machines? It’s not foreign. Why aren’t we the hemp straw capital of the world? Why don’t we have leaders that ask these questions? People look at my platform from out of state, from in state, from in North Anson, from everywhere and they say ‘This is genius!’ Well, you know, I’m a modest person but (laughs), I like to think of it as, you know, it’s a way to pave the future, and we have to think futuristically. Not like the Jetsons, but right here, right now, you know, we could bag up hemp soil with dirt from around here and sell it to out of staters, and call it soil, hemp soil amendment. Stamp Madison Maine on it, bag it up, make it in little bags, sell that at the tourist destinations, and we’d be making money like that. That’s what we need to do. So I spent my early years growing up on welfare, and I’m not ashamed of it, and I spent my later years working in construction, and I’m not ashamed of that, I divorced a man because he made me feel that I need to be ashamed of those things. He said, ‘Don’t tell people you were poor, you’re too pretty. Don’t tell people you grew up…(TIME UP)

Thomas Skolfield

How do we retain young people in the state of Maine, well one of the things I think we should do and we could do is look at ways tax incentive wise to reduce the cost of education. I think for example, you know you can play with the numbers and you can play with the times and the terms, but if a person graduated from a school and they were to be willing to put in their time to the state of Maine, for every year that they stay here in Maine, well say up to about ten years, their tuition would be taken care of, one tenth per year. So if they stay here for ten years, it would be paid for. During that ten year period, they’re going to become rooted, they’re going to raise a family, they’re going to buy cars, they’re gonna buy a home, they’re gonna buy stuff which all goes back into the economy and at the end of that ten year period, their education is paid for. I think we could do something like that. Now if they drop out early, if they leave early, that’s, that’s another matter, but they would only be credited for that portion of the time that they spent here. I think we need to think outside the box. I think we need to look at ways not only to retain our young people, but to actually attract and recruit people from out of state. You know we spend a lot of money educating our children in this state. And I think we do a pretty good job of educating our children in this state. What sense does it make to invest in those children, those youngsters, just to have them go to Connecticut and get a job. Why not invest that money so that they could stay here and prosper and live and thrive in this state.

Jan Collins

There are two major areas that are necessary for economic development. One is education and the second is infrastructure. We need both. In order to increase jobs we need to address education and this, in this particular administration has actually not done a good job of that. For instance twenty years ago the state of Maine paid for sixty percent of the higher education budget. Thirty years ago it paid for seventy percent of the higher education budget. Today it pays for forty percent. If we’re asking ourselves why people leave college with such high debt, it’s because they now have to make up for that difference, the state is no longer spending on higher education in Maine. So, if you leave school with a very high debt, the other part, infrastructure, again the government has not issued bonds for infrastructure and as a result the infrastructure in Maine is lagging behind. We are next to the last in the country for broadband internet. That is crucial to any business that is trying to expand in the state of Maine today. We need to be able to invest in the infrastructure necessary for businesses to move here. Another thing that we should consider is we are an aging state. The Maine Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of more immigration to the state of Maine because a ten year study of the economics in Maine has shown that … (TIME UP) Sorry, I could have gone on for a long time. (laughs)

Russell Black-

Well I think we need to encourage to have more programs as Tom talked about, you know with tuition forgiveness or some kind of looking at the income tax system to encourage people to stay in Maine. You know we need to tie it to years served, you know in the area. We need to encourage more people, more young professionals and business owners to move to rural Maine so there needs to be some incentives in place to do that. We know that there are a lot of jobs here and there’s gonna be a lot more jobs in the near future with the aging workforce and we’re not training enough people in our colleges and vocational technical schools to replace those. So we need to step up and fund our college, public college, and our vocational technical schools better. Question 4 was talking about the University of Maine system responding to the cliff in the nursing situation that’s coming right up and they plan on doubling their nursing enrollment and expanding nursing programs with high need communities and provide nursing educations to students with a great, the greatest financial need. So that’s tied to Question 4. You know, so that’s a primary, there’s a good example of where we need. We’re gonna need 3200 more nurses in a very short period of time and we need to have the infrastructure there to train them. And it’s the same in the trades. There’s some good trade jobs, welders, and all of kinds of people in the construction industry that need more vocational technical training. And we need to expand those areas. Chenbro is trying to do it on their own but we need more in the system.

Additional questions and answers to come. Please revisit our website for updates on the following:

Prepared Question #3:What do you think about Maine Care expansion?

Prepared Question #4:Where do you stand on gun control laws?

The three questions that were given via index cards were as follows:

Audience Submitted Question #1:What is your knowledge of affirmative action?

Audience Submitted Question #2:Because you have had lots of time to get to know each other. If your opponent wins their election, what do you feel will be his/her strength as a legislator?

Audience Submitted Question #3: Please comment on how the tax cuts for Maine’s wealthiest citizens under the LePage administration has affected rural Maine.




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