David Emery (left) and Senator David Miramant (Photos by Hanji Chang)
David Emery (left) and Senator David Miramant (Photos by Hanji Chang)
Last week Sen. David Miramant (D-Camden) and Republican challenger David Emery of Tenants Harbor sat down for a two-hour debate held by The Free Press to discuss a wide range of issues from taxes and education funding to health care, immigration and renewable energy. Sen. Mike Thibodeau (R-Waldo Cty) initially agreed to participate in a similar debate with his Democratic challenger Jonathan Fulford for the Waldo County Senate seat, but backed out.

The Knox County Senate Candidates on Tax Policy

Emery and Miramant differed on how tax policy should be crafted. During the past six years, the governor and the Legislature have cut income taxes while shifting the burden to property taxes and sales taxes. As a result of reductions in revenue sharing to towns, the City of Rockland saw its share of state revenue decline from nearly $1 million in 2009 to $511,000 in 2013, which was offset by raising property taxes. Last session, the Legislature passed another round of income tax cuts, while expanding and raising some sales taxes.  

Gov. LePage and the Republican Party are currently backing a citizen referendum, which failed to secure enough signatures this year, to eliminate the income tax altogether. On November 8, voters will weigh in on Question 2, which would return tax rates closer to 2011 levels for the top 2 percent of Maine income earners by levying a 3-percent surcharge on Maine households earning over $200,000 per year. The money would then be returned to towns to help meet a 2004 voter-mandated target of funding schools at 55 percent.

Sen. Miramant called the 2011 tax cuts “short sighted” and said the property tax is regressive because it doesn’t take into account how much income the taxpayer makes. He said he supports Question 2 because income tax cuts for upper wage earners has led to cuts in education. 

“The reduction of the income tax was too much without something to replace it,” said Miramant. “We can’t just throw away sources of income and pretend that they will be made up somewhere. It’s already been proven wrong.”

David Emery said he supports moving toward the 55 percent state funding goal, but is opposed to Question 2 because taxing people at the higher income levels could hurt the economy.

“Furthermore, people in the higher brackets are the most mobile and if they feel that they can’t afford to live in Maine because of impacts of tax policy, then they will leave and they will take with them their income,” he said.

Emery said that before making any tax policy, the state should use a software tool called “dynamic analysis,” which allows budget analysts to measure how various policies will impact jobs and economic growth. The program is currently used by the Congressional Budget Office and other states.

The Referendum Questions

As for the other four referendum questions, Miramant supports all five and Emery opposes all five. Miramant says he supports Question 1, which would legalize recreational marijuana, while Emery says he opposes it because he believes the proposal would make the drug more available to adolescents. Miramant says he supports Question 3, which would require background checks for private firearm sales, because he believes “it stops insane people and ... criminals.” Emery opposes the measure because he says it is “cumbersome and unfair to hunters and others who lawfully own firearms.”

“Lending or sharing a firearm between friends is common practice in Maine, and it would become illegal in many cases under this law,” wrote Emery in an email following the event. “This is an over-reach that is not compatible with the Maine hunting tradition.”

According to the proposed law, temporary transfers for activities including hunting, target shooting at an established firing range and organized competitions involving firearms would all be exempt from mandatory background checks. 

Also exempt would be sales or transfers of antique firearms as well as gun transfers to husbands, wives, domestic partners, “intimate partners,” parents by blood, parents by adoption, children by blood, children by adoption, siblings by blood, siblings by adoption, grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, first cousins, father-in-laws, mother-in-laws, son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws, brother-in-laws, sister-in-laws, stepfathers, stepmothers, stepsons, stepdaughters, stepbrothers, stepsisters, half brothers, and half sisters.

Miramant says he supports Question 4, which would gradually increase the minimum wage from $7.50 to $12 an hour by 2020 and index it to inflation. The measure would also  increase the direct wage for tipped workers from $3.75 per hour to $5 an hour in 2017 and then raise it incrementally to the minimum wage by 2024. Emery says he opposes it because he believes it will hurt small businesses and lead to job losses. 

Medicaid Expansion: Miramant Yes, Emery No

Currently Maine is one of just 19 states that has refused to accept millions of dollars in federal funding for Medicaid expansion, which would cover approximately 70,000 low-income Mainers. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will cover 100 percent of the costs of expansion until the end of 2016 and then gradually drop down the reimbursement to 90 percent by 2020. 

Emery said he is opposed to expanding Medicaid because he’s concerned that the cost of administration may be more than the state can absorb. He also noted that ACA health care exchanges in several other states are struggling financially and  said it would be wiser to hold off on Medicaid expansion until Maine can be “certain” that the federal government will honor its obligations. 

“We can’t afford to do that in the tight budget situation we face now,” said Emery. “So I think it is folly and imprudent to make this commitment at the present time until we know how the Affordable Care Act is going to be rewritten and fixed, which should be done ... by this next Congress.”

Miramant, who voted for Medicaid expansion, says he supports it because it will help low-income people with addictions get drug treatment and will prevent 70,000  people from relying on free charity care. 

Medicaid expansion is supported by the Maine Police Chiefs Association and the Maine Sheriffs Association, who argue that the money can be used to help treat the 60 percent of inmates with substance use disorders and nearly 40 percent of inmates suffering from mental illness in the state’s jails. The administration of Pen Bay Medical Center and Waldo County General Hospital has stated that the hospitals have been forced to cover $5.8 million in free care for low-income uninsured people who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid coverage. Those costs get shifted to private insurance carriers who then pass it on to consumers in the form of higher premiums. Currently, activists are gathering signatures to put Medicaid expansion before the voters in a referendum.

Treating People with Addictions

Both Emery and Miramant say they support increasing funding for drug treatment programs, including counseling, detoxification, and medication-assisted treatment like methadone and Suboxone. Emery said a range of treatments needs to be available depending on the individual’s level of addiction. 

“Some people will go through detox and rehab and be just fine,” he said. “Others, it’s sad to say, may be on methadone for the rest of their lives because they simply cannot break it on their own. This is a sad reality, but when you see a methadone clinic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a ne’er-do-well or a derelict there. It could be your next-door neighbor. It could be your son or daughter.”

Miramant agreed, adding that he opposed measures to impose harsher penalties on low-level drug offenders. He noted that he voted for a compromise bill with the LePage administration that provided some money for drug enforcement as well as funding for detoxification, counseling and funding for uninsured people with addictions to receive treatment. 

“We have some real ideologies that we’ve had to work against and in spite of that, we made sure that [the funding] was split,” he said. 

Workforce Shortage and Immigration

As Maine’s baby boomer generation retires, state economists have predicted massive labor shortages in the years to come, which could have a negative impact on the economy. Both candidates agreed that more immigration is a potential solution to the problem. Both candidates say that they support continuing to provide emergency housing assistance to asylum seekers while they are waiting for their work visas to process, which has been opposed by the LePage administration and Republican legislative leaders. 

“We have so many people who would love to come [here],” said Miramant. “This country has welcomed immigrants and it’s what has created this country.”

Emery agreed, noting that for every 30 births in Maine per day, there are 40 deaths. “So immigration is a real solution to this problem,” said Emery, “and it is a red-white-and-blue-American-Ellis-Island solution that has worked for this country for 225 years or longer.”

Emery said Maine should take a cue from the Canadian Maritimes, which have been having similar demographic problems, and advertise the need for immigrants to come to the state. He said that the state should also focus on streamlining licensing regulations to allow skilled newcomers, such as dentists, transfer their licenses to Maine more easily.    

Both candidates recognized that access to affordable housing is a problem in the area and said they would support efforts to refurbish homes to help create more affordable housing for workers.

Renewable Energy

During the past year, legislative leaders have often been at odds with Gov. LePage over energy policy, as the governor is opposed to any public incentives for renewable energy and supports subsidizing natural gas pipelines and large-scale Canadian hydro power. Both Emery and Miramant say they support the solar stakeholder compromise, which was vetoed by LePage, that would have created an alternative rate plan for rooftop solar arrays and increased the number of solar installations in the state.

Miramant said he also supports further investments in offshore wind and tidal power to end dependence on fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. “The problem is we’re still subsidizing oil, which is so polluting our air, our water, our land,” he said. “... Moving away from a polluting source of energy is not just a good idea. It’s what we’re going to have to do to survive as a species.”

Emery said he would advocate for expanding the current state goal of 40 percent renewables by the end of 2017 to 50 percent renewables by 2030. He added that he would also like the state to set a goal of reducing the greenhouse gas emissions by 20 to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. 

“That will require a number of changes in state law and state policy, but if we set aggressive goals for renewable energy and greenhouse gas emissions and back that up with the legislation that’s needed to implement those changes, we can reach those goals and we can be a model for the nation in the process,” he said. 

However, the candidates differed on whether the state should be investing in natural gas. Miramant argued that the gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracking pollutes groundwater and has been linked to earthquakes. Emery said the region needs natural gas as a bridge fuel, but said he’d be open to changing his position if he believed the scientific research proves that it is environmentally destructive.

Weighing in on Trump and Clinton

When asked who he supported for president, Miramant, who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary,  gave his full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton. 

“This is an incredibly qualified woman who has devoted her life to helping people,” said Miramant. “She genuinely cares about people, and I have no trouble supporting her and hoping that she will embrace Bernie Sanders as he has embraced her ... and the progressive ideas that I stand for and work for.”

However, David Emery said that for the first time in his life he will not be supporting his party’s presidential nominee because he doesn’t believe Donald Trump is “temperamentally or experientially qualified to be president of the United States.”

“And I know that’s going to irritate a few people from my side of the aisle, but I’ve lived with a certain set of principles all my life and one of those is to be respectful of people, tolerant of people,” said Emery. “I don’t use coarse language when I’m addressing friends or adversaries and I’m certainly not going to use crude language that relates to women. I’d be ashamed of myself if I did.”

He said he would write in conservative independent Evan McMullin for president.