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Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage sparred over taxes, child care, housing and other issues at a debate Thursday morning in Portland.
Mills, the Democratic incumbent, is running for reelection this November against LePage, her Republican predecessor, who served as governor from 2011 to 2019.
On taxes, LePage called for phasing out the state's income tax in order to dissuade families from leaving. Mills said she opposes raising taxes after quadrupling the state's Rainy Day Fund to a record amount.
Mills also referenced steps she took during her first year in office to rebuild the Maine Center for Disease Control and rehire nurses laid off during the previous administration, noting, "We had the reserves, we had the power to fight back" against the pandemic.
LePage repeatedly referred to President Joe Biden as "Uncle Joe." He dismissed the fact that some of the Mills administration's pandemic-relief measures were underwritten by federal funds. "This governor has been very fortunate that COVID came," LePage said.
The debate, before an audience of more than 500 people, was moderated by Quincy Hentzel, CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce and a 2021 Mainebiz Woman to Watch.
Hentzel told Mainebiz afterwards that the debate "was a great opportunity for our members to hear the candidates' stance on some of the most pressing issues in our community."
On child care, Mills highlighted various steps her administration took during her term — and during the pandemic — to tackle the ongoing shortage. Those steps include dedicating $25 million from her Maine Jobs & Recovery Plan to renovate, build and expand new child care facilities, Mills noted.
LePage's response: "Talk is really cheap, and money covers a lot of sins." He also said he would solve the state's child care shortage by expanding after-school care for children age kindergarten through grade eight, and put stay-at-home moms and grandmothers to work to look after the children.
"But you've got to pay them; it's not a stipend," he said. LePage also suggested paying teacher stipends to provide after-school tutoring to children who have fallen behind the past two years.
Pushing back against that idea, Mills referenced moves she's taken to expand early childhood education programs in Maine's Career and Technical Education Centers and community colleges, saying that "more people are being trained up."
"You don't just hire people off the street," she said. "You hire trained people, pay them a decent wage ... and you respect their profession."
Housing was another bone of contention.
LePage said he would reduce the number of public schools and turn some of them into affordable housing, while Mills pointed to new senior housing funded with a $15 million bond that had sat on LePage's desk for more than two years before she took office.
"When they move into those units," Mills said, "that frees up housing in the community for others to take on." She also admitted that addressing workforce housing takes time.
"It's a slow process," she said. "You don't build buildings overnight."
Labor regulations was another hot-button issue. LePage called for a statewide rate of pay, saying that minimum wage was never intended to be a living wage. He also criticized today's 58% labor participation rate as well below the national average, saying, "We need to get our folks back to work."
Mills used her closing statement to mention that the workforce participation rate for the prime age group is 82%.
"People are working," she said. "I want to keep on that path to progress."
One of the few issues the candidates agreed on: Cruise ships benefit Maine's economy.
"Absolutely. Period," LePage said during the debate's "lightning round."
"Yes, they should be welcome here," Mills agreed. "They're an important economic driver."
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