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by Rich Hewitt
Candidates for state House and Senate seats answered questions Monday during a candidate’s forum at the Blue Hill Public Library.
The forum, sponsored by the library, the League of Women Voters of Maine and The Ellsworth American, brought together candidates for House District 36 and 37 and Senate District 28. Incumbent Ralph Chapman of Brooksville, a Democrat, faces a challenge from Republican Sherman Hutchins of Penobscot, a former state representative from District 37. Democrat incumbent Walter Kumiega of Little Deer Isle, is running against Republican Kim Strauss of Bass Harbor. Strauss is living on an island and was not able to attend the forum.
In the Senate race, incumbent Republican Brian Langley of Ellsworth is being challenged by Democrat David White of Bar Harbor.
The three House candidates agreed that if their party gains control, it will have a tremendous impact on the district and on the state. Kumiega said it will be a lot easier to negotiate a budget that is fair for all Mainers if the Democrats regain the majority, while Hutchins said that if the Republicans hold on to a majority in the House, the state will have four full years of Republican control, “as opposed to the last 40 with the Democrats. Over the last four decades, you saw the hole they dug into,” he said. The last two years has only been a good start, he added.
Road maintenance and improvement triggered the only other partisan moment during the forum, with Chapman and Kumiega arguing that the state has not allocated sufficient funds to keep up with deterioration on Maine’s road, specifically pointing to Gov. LePage’s refusal to issue bonds for road work. Kumiega noted that no capital funds were included in the most recent transportation budget and that it was uncertain whether the governor and treasurer would issue bonds if voters pass the $51 million transportation bond question on the November ballot.
Hutchins said that too often the bond issues have been misused in the past. He defended the governor’s approach toward cutting state spending. “The debt clock is running backwards,” he said. “In the past 40 years, the Democrats couldn’t do that.”
The three candidates all put the fishing industry near the top of their priority list. But they differed on charter schools with Hutchins in support and Kumiega and Chapman with reservations. Kumiega said allowing charter schools funneled public funds to private, for-profit operations that are largely unregulated.
They also had different views on gun control. As a licensed hunter, Kumiega said he had no problem with legal ownership of guns.
“The problem is that there are too many guns in the hands of criminals,” he said. “We need to look at how they get the guns and see if we can do things to lessen it.”
Hutchins agreed for the need to keep guns away from criminals but said you don’t do that by taking guns away from law abiding citizens.
Chapman said most people own guns for protection, but noted that statistics indicate that the chances of someone being injured are greater if there is a gun in the house.
In response to audience questions, the candidates differed in their views on oil usage. Hutchins said the use of natural gas may help to counter rising oil costs, but he said oil will be the primary source of energy for the next century.
Chapman argued that “the cheapest energy is the energy we save”’ and noted that weatherization projects can save money. On average, he said, weatherization projects in Maine have reduced fuel consumption by about 28 percent.
Kumiega argued for combined effort. “There’s a lot we can do with conservation,” he said. “And there’s a lot we can do with renewables.”
Hutchins noted that renewable energy development was heavily subsidized by the government. “That’s paying out of the left pocket instead of the right,” he said.
Kumiega said he did not support the state’s Insurance Reform Bill because it moved the state in the wrong direction. Some portions of the federal Affordable Care Act were moving in the right direction, he said. Chapman said the state needed an insurance system that would encourage people to be healthy and stay healthy, and he argued that a single-payer system would do that. Hutchins argued that “Obama Care” put control of health insurance in the hands of the federal government, a move he said would cost individuals more. He also charged that “Obama Care” would siphon $7 billion from Medicare to fund insuring all Americans.
Hutchins supported some type of voter ID and a requirement to register at least three days before the elections similar to the legislation which voters rejected in a referendum vote. Chapman and Kumiega opposed the idea. Kumiega said it would be expensive, and would create a poll tax which is unconstitutional. Chapman said the measure was a solution looking for a problem and it represented a form of voter suppression. Same day registration, such as Maine has, increases participation, he said.
“Voting is the least we can do to be involved,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to suppress anyone’s ability to vote.”
The two Senate candidates differed on their assessment of the state’s changes to the health insurance rating system. White said he thought it was a mistake to “pull the plug on 15 years of consumer protection.” Although the Affordable Care Act is large and complex, he said it does some good things such as providing coverage for all Americans. “I view health care as human right and I think we shouldn’t continue to treat it like a commodity.”
Although he admitted that the law may need some adjustments, Langley said based on the reports he’s received, business owners are seeing decreases in their premiums as a result of the changes. That, he said, is due in part to the fact that companies are offering new products for consumers.
White countered that the vast majority of people are spending more for insurance.
Langley said he has chaired the education and marine resources committees in the Legislature and would like to continue to serve on those committees if reelected. White also listed marine resources because of its importance to the district, but said he also would like to serve on either Insurance and Finance or Health and Human Services.
Both Langley and White said they would support fin fish aquaculture in Blue Hill Bay, if it was done right. Langley said he purchases a lot of local fish for his Ellsworth restaurant, and “I see how wonderful it is.” He acknowledged that there have been times when it was not done right, but when he sees it being done right, he’d support it.
They both said they would back local food ordinances, which has become an issue in their district and in other districts around the state. White said local people need to be able to purchase food from local farmers, noting that certain minimal precautions needed to be observed. If they’re not, he said, they’re not going to be in business very long.
Langley noted that 90 percent of what he buys is local and it will be important to find a balance between the regulation for the large agri-businesses and those that are the “right size” for small local businesses. That can only happen, he said, if they get a dialogue going between the farmers and the Dept. of Agriculture.
Both candidates also said they opposed the influence of outside attack ads in local campaigns. White said he would even back an effort to make the ads illegal. Langley, who saw first-hand the impact those ads have during his last election, said he had attempted to write legislation to require those type of ads clearly state that they are not paid for by the candidate, but said it was unsuccessful. “You run into the buzz saw of the First Amendment,” he said.
Asked about reapportionment, White said he would like to see it done through a bi-partisan, independent board, a process that might include an ombudsman to oversee the process. Langley said he approached the last reapportionment looking for the configuration that made the most sense. Unfortunately, he said, the process, in reality, is very political with both sides trying to construct districts that benefit their parties.
On the question of reducing the size of the Legislature, Langley said there were good arguments on both sides of the issues. Initially, he said, he supported the idea, but said when he really looked at the size of some of the districts already, he became concerned about representation for the people and who would be left out if there were fewer districts. White agreed and said he did not see the need for fewer districts.