Maine’s seven republican candidates for governor debated job creation, tax reform, education, immigration and government spending in a live televised debate Tuesday evening at USM.

With the June 8 primaries one week away, the debate was seen by many as a way for each candidate to set themselves apart from a crowded field of gubernatorial hopefuls. According to a poll released Tuesday by the Pan Atlantic SMS Group, voters are still basically undecided: 47% of republicans and 61% of democrats polled say they didn’t yet know their choice for governor.

The candidates spoke for an hour in a debate sponsored by WMTW, Channel 8 and USM. The four democratic candidates will debate tomorrow at 7 p.m.

The republican candidates are:

Steve Abbott, 47, of Portland was most recently the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. Bill Beardsley, 67, of Ellsworth served as president of Husson University in Bangor for 22 years. Matt Jacobson, 48, of Cumberland is president and chief executive officer of Maine & Company. Paul LePage, 61, is mayor of Waterville and general manager of the Marden’s chain of stores. Peter Mills, 66, of Cornville owns a law practice, is a state senator and has been in the Legislature for 16 years. Les Otten, 60, of Greenwood, is the principal of Maine Energy Systems, Sports Vision Technologies, The Phoenix Restaurant and the Colony Development and Builders Co. Bruce Poliquin, 53, of Georgetown, is a businessman and developer. He started a real estate firm called Dirigo Holdings about five years ago.

The candidates offered their solutions for creating new jobs in Maine, which currently has an 8.9% unemployment rate. All seven said they thought Maine’s government was too big, and its tax structure too restrictive.

Beardsley said Maine should go after “the low-hanging fruit” and find ways to create jobs using existing resources.

Jacobson touted his experience as a businessman and said he brought jobs out of state to Maine with his own business. LePage decried state regulations. “We’ve got to bring back this little document to Augusta: the Constitution,” he said. Mills said Maine’s capital gains tax is “punishing capital,” and driving jobs elsewhere. “We drive good money out of the state,” with the current tax structure, said Otten, who — like most of the candidates — said Maine needs to reform its welfare system.

The candidates had mixed support for casinos. Most were opposed, but many said they would leave it up to voters.

“If the people vote for it, so be it, but I don’t think they will,” said Mills.

Most candidates also showed support for some kind of immigration reform.

“You can jump the fence and get any kind of benefit you want from the state of Maine,” said LePage.

Otten said his father had to wait ten years to become an American citizen. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he said.

Mills said he disagreed with “Obamacare,” but that Maine has a duty to provide health care to its citizens.

Paul LePage said people need to be working if they’re on welfare. “I don’t think you can come across the state line at 8 in the morning and be on welfare by 4:30 in the afternoon,” he said, adding that those on welfare could work at a soup kitchen.

“We continue to throw money at the Dirigo problem, though we’ve only insured 3,400 people who previously didn’t have insurance,” said Abbott. He said government should evaluate programs on their merit and not make across the board cuts or increases in funding. Abbott also said that while spending for education has increased, enrollment in schools is down. He said Maine needs to make K-12 education more efficient.

Many candidates also said that there are too many students in special-ed. Beardsley said Maine should reduce the percentage of Maine students in special-ed “to the national average.”

“Teachers are doing a great job — they’re trying to,” said LePage. He blamed government and “big unions” for getting in the way of teachers doing their jobs.

Both LePage and Poliquin said Maine should allow charter schools. Poliquin said that while education is the key to increasing income, “we’re broke. We have no more money. We have to admit it if we’re going to fix this problem.”


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