Interview ME Gov Candidate Eliot Cutler (I)

The Maine View has interview gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler.  Mr. Cutler is running as an independent.  We discussed his view on education, the economy, Dirigo health care, and more.  Please read out full interview after the cut.  See more interviews with Maine 2010 gubernatorial candidates at the Augusta Insider.

The Maine View: The gubernatorial field is quickly becoming crowded.  There are currently 21 candidates, with more possible.  What sets you apart from your fellow candidates and makes you more qualified to hold the office of governor?

What sets me apart from the other candidates is my vision for Maine, my experience, my independence and my proven ability to make tough decisions.

The next decade is going to be the most challenging time in Maine’s history. Too many Maine people are not working or are working at jobs that don’t allow them to adequately provide for their families. At the same time, as a state we are spending too much and our government is not working efficiently or effectively.

But this also can and should be an exciting time, filled with great opportunity. With strong, independent leadership Maine can work again. By focusing on – and investing in – Maine’s competitive advantages, we can create good jobs and raise incomes. We can make government live within its means and operate with more efficiency and accountability. We can lower our energy and healthcare costs. We can work together as One Maine again, with a common purpose and shared commitment.

As I travel our state, I hear one conviction repeated over and over and again: The same partisan politics that got us into this mess will never get us out of it. I am running as an Independent, because I am convinced that real change will only come if Maine has a leader who can move beyond the tired rivalries that have left our major parties beholden to narrow interest groups and starved for new ideas.

Maine people are tired of slogans and empty promises. They are looking for a leader who has a strategy – and the experience and skills to back it up with action. No other candidate in this race can match my experience or my record of accomplishment.

Over and over I have shown that I can make government work and can solve difficult problems where others have failed — redirecting government programs and making them work better, helping to settle the contentious land-claims cases brought by Maine’s Native American tribes, leading efforts to build or rebuild highways and America’s largest airports, or figuring out how to clean up complicated waste sites. I have unmatched credentials in environmental and energy matters; I helped Ed Muskie write our nation’s clean air and clean water laws, and I served as chief of energy policy in the White House. Most recently, I led my law firm’s business development efforts in China, the fastest growing economy in the world.

Like every other candidate, I love Maine. I was born and raised in Bangor, and it was there where I learned the values that have guided me all of my life. It is where my grandfather arrived alone as a 12 year-old immigrant, started life in America as a peddler, and through hard work and determination built opportunities for his children and grandchildren that were far beyond any he could have dreamed of for himself.

Many of us believe that Maine has lost its way. Our state government is too remote, too big and leaderless. We pay for too many things that we don’t need or can’t afford. We pay too much to deliver what we do need. And the service itself – the customer service – isn’t always as good as it should be. We have become a divided and fractious community.

We can change that. I know that Maine can work again. For all of us.

That’s why I want to be Maine’s next Governor.

TMV: This last budget was extraordinarily difficult, and it looks like next year the deficit could approach the billion-dollar mark or even more. What makes you want to be governor in this climate?

A staggering and growing gap exists between the obligations the state has taken on and the money that is available from Maine taxpayers to pay for state services.

The task ahead is daunting. We need to rethink what we expect from government and public institutions, because we need to reform, reshape and resize government at all levels. We cannot afford to do anything else. At the same time, we need to rebuild our economy, create jobs and generate growing incomes by making focused and strategic investments in those assets that give Maine a competitive advantage.

Over and over during my career, I have demonstrated the ability to bring people together, to innovate and to make tough decisions. No other candidate has served as a budget official – saying no, cutting programs, eliminating waste and reshaping government – as I did as Associate Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the White House.

This is no ordinary time in Maine. I will bring to the Blaine House the strong, independent and experienced leadership that can bring the state’s budget under control.

TMV: What are going to be the most important issues for Maine in the next five years?

Without question, it’s our economy. We have to get Maine people back to work. We have to create new jobs and raise income levels.

To do that, we have to focus on the changes and investments that will make a difference.  We need to lower our energy costs, especially the cost of electricity. We need to lower our health care costs, while making health care available to everyone in Maine. We have to invest in education and do a much better job coordinating our educational strategies and resources from early childhood education through graduate studies… and relating our educational and economic strategies to each other.

We also have to make Maine work again for Maine people. The time for tinkering on the margins is over. We need to make fundamental changes in how we deliver state services and how we spend the hard-earned money Maine people pay in taxes. We need to focus on efficiency, customer service and accountability. Hard choices need to be made, and I am prepared to make them.

TMV: How can we put Maine on a path to economic prosperity?

It starts with leadership.  We need a governor with a clear vision of where we’re going, a sound and focused strategy on how to get us there, and the experience, determination and skills to get the job done. Maine people need to hire a governor with the guts and courage to do the job, no matter what the political consequences are.

Here is the strategy that I think will expand our economy, give birth to new jobs and generate growing incomes:

  • We will lower the costs of living and doing business in Maine, particularly electricity and health care costs. These are the two most potent levers we have to address to get Maine working again.
  • I am tired of hearing people talk about harnessing Maine’s winds and tides and solar energy resources, only to export electricity somewhere else. Electricity in Maine doesn’t have to be as expensive as it is. We can have an exciting energy future that benefits Maine people first. I will create a new model for public/private partnerships centered around a Maine Power Authority, to help make our energy system more efficient, to generate electricity from Maine’s resources, to lessen our home-heating dependence on foreign oil, to use energy resources now wasted, to lower electricity costs and to put lower costs and a more efficient system to work creating new jobs in Maine.
  • Regardless of what happens at the federal level, we will take steps to reduce health care costs in Maine. We have to stop paying for procedures and start paying for outcomes. Cianbro, Hussey and other great Maine companies have led the way, and I will make sure that every citizen in Maine has affordable access to essential health care in a program that no longer relies on a bloated Medicaid program and a well-intentioned but overly costly Dirigo program.
  • We will make focused and strategic investments to reinvigorate our forest, agriculture and tourism industries, and we will make the Gulf of Maine one of the leading protein producers in a world increasingly starved for it.
  • We will bring a quick end to the fragmented and outmoded management of Maine’s higher education programs; better integrate early childhood, K-12 and post-secondary education; and instead of fighting battles over whether one size fits all, shift our focus to cost-effective ways in which we can achieve excellence, reduce inequities and provide all Maine children with the education opportunities that they need.
  • We will create a leaner state government that uses tax dollars wisely and efficiently, while delivering quality services to those who need them.

TMV: What one piece of legislation in this past legislative session did you consider most important, whether you were for it or against it?

There are two: tax reform and marriage equality. I supported both efforts. The jury is still out on how well the enacted tax reform package will live up to its billing, but it represents an important attempt to lower the marginal income tax rate and make Maine’s tax system fairer. Much more needs to be done, but this was a start.

I know people have strong feelings on both sides of the marriage issue, but I was never prouder to be from Maine than the day that the public hearing was held on this issue. The fact that such an emotional issue could be debated by Maine citizens from across our state in such a respectful manner says volumes about who we are and why we need to do whatever is necessary to preserve the civic culture that makes Maine unique.

TMV: Many in Maine consider the Dirigo Health program to be a failure at worst and mediocre at best. Is Dirigo Health working for Mainers?  Should we continue trying to perfect Dirigo Health or scrap it entirely and move on to something else?

Dirigo’s health insurance program was well-intentioned but it just didn’t work. It covers too few of those who need coverage, and at too high a cost. I will end it.

We also need to bring under control Maine’s excessive spending on Medicaid, which is way, way above the national average.

In place of these programs I want to create a Maine program that provides universal access to essential health care services for all Maine citizens at a price that Maine taxpayers can afford.  I want to develop a program that is modeled after the highly successful efforts undertaken by Cianbro, Hussey and other large Maine employers, that takes advantage of Maine’s strong systems of non-profit hospitals and that incentivizes and pays for healthy behaviors and healthy outcomes.

I think the health care debate in Congress has gone off the track and is missing the most important point. We need to stop arguing about who pays and start thinking about what we are paying for!

Whether we like it or not, and whether we realize it or not, we are all paying today for each other’s health care – and we are paying far, far too much for it. We are all paying high prices for unnecessary visits to hospital emergency rooms, we are paying billions in advertising, overhead and profits to health insurance companies, and we are paying for expensive treatments and remedies for conditions that could have been avoided.

We have to stop paying for procedures and start paying for good health.  Many of the diseases we pay for are preventable. We need to create incentives for people to stop smoking, to lose weight and to take better care of themselves. That is the only way that we are going to bring costs under control, and it is the only way as a society and as a state that we will be able to afford broad access to essential care.

We can make this work in Maine, and we will bring our state together to do it.

TMV: Cigarette smoking is a deadly and expensive habit, and yet it has been said that Maine relies heavily on the cigarette tax. Can Maine balance the health needs of its residents while recognizing the need for the income from the cigarette tax?

Both of my parents died from diseases caused by smoking, or to which their smoking contributed.  I smoked when I was younger – for too many years – and I would be happy if we never collected another dime from cigarette taxes in Maine, because it would mean that everyone in Maine had quit smoking. We can never collect enough cigarette tax money to offset our costs related to smoking-related illnesses and deaths.

Losing income from cigarette taxes should never be a concern. Getting smokers to quit and making sure young people never start should be our only focus.

If a tax that is higher than the national average for this dangerous product leads to more Maine people quitting, better healthcare for those who are sick and more programs to help educate people about the dangers of cigarettes and second-hand smoke, then I think that we’re headed in the right policy direction.

TMV: With Maine and America struggling to find and keep their jobs, it is clear that much of the focus of this campaign will be on the economy.  Many younger Mainers have been forced to leave the state upon graduating high school or college.  In recent statistics it has been shown that Maine has the oldest population in the nation.  How do you plan to stop the flight of Maine’s youth and attract young people back to live and work in Maine?

First, too many kids don’t go on to college, and too many of those who do, leave Maine for college and never come back. Second, too many kids who don’t want to go to college never receive adequate training for a trade that will enable them to earn a good living.  As a consequence, we are getting older as a state, we don’t have the young and well-educated workforce that employers in the new knowledge economy want, and the young people who stay in Maine aren’t well-equipped for the skilled trades that can help us rebuild Maine’s economy.

We need to fix this, and we need to do it now.  We need to introduce talented high school kids to the excitement of higher education before they graduate from high school.  We need to create the kinds of post-secondary educational opportunities and experiences that will make Maine kids want to stay here for their education and that relate well to the Maine economy. We need to get our college systems talking with each other – so that the credits earned by a student who graduates from a community college program will be recognized at one of our four-year universities.  And we need to take a closer look at where and how we offer vocational education in Maine, so that we can be sure that every Maine kid – whether he or she goes to college or not – is trained and skilled and is in a position to reach his or her maximum potential.

TMV: I have two young daughters, one two years old and one four months old.  As it stands now, their K-12 experience will not differ much from my own, my parents or my grandparents.  Our children are being asked to compete against China and India in a 21st century global economy with an early 20th century industrial education.  The Maine legislature recently rejected one innovation, charter schools.  What education reforms or innovations would you like to see in Maine?  Are there some Maine can do without?

You are absolutely right. We need to prepare our students for a challenging and competitive global economy with a strong 21st century education. There are 50 cities in China with as many people as we have in our entire state, and soon there will be 80. The Chinese are capable and ambitious, and we need to be ready to compete.

One of the reasons I got into this race was the response I received in January to my Policy Soundings speech entitled Keeping Pace: Maine in a Changing World. I encourage your readers to download it and to listen to it at www.cutler2010.com/news.php. (It’s a good idea to download the .pdf file first, so that you can follow the text and slides.)

I support charter schools, and I regret that the legislature rejected this idea.  When I am governor, we will pass it.  This bill had the support of educators and parents from around the state, but another good idea was lost because the same old tired politics kept us from innovating and moving forward.  We are shooting ourselves in the foot here, as the rejection of the charter schools measure will end up costing Maine millions of dollars in federal education funds that we need desperately.

TMV: How do you view the current business and political climate in this state?

The business climate in this state is not what it needs to be, and we need to fix it fast.  I already have outlined some of my priorities, like lowering energy and health care costs, investing in education, and getting state spending under control.

But more than that, we have to set a new tone in Maine. Too often we are inconsistent in how we apply laws and regulations. Too often we change the rules in the middle of the game. Too often we give prospective employers the impression of playing “gotcha,” rather than asking – and demonstrating – how we can work with them.

I will set a different tone as Governor. I want people and businesses to invest in Maine because we have an educated workforce, because we recognize and focus on our competitive advantages, because we manage well and efficiently, because we apply our laws consistently and fairly and because our state agencies and employees embrace a strong customer-service culture.

TMV: Maine’s natural beauty is one of its biggest draws.  Tourists and industry alike utilize the wealth of resources available here.  What are some ways you would like to see business harness those resources?  Can environmental protection and economic growth exist without conflict?

Not only is our natural beauty one of our most obvious and important competitive advantages, tourism is Maine’s largest single industry.

For tourism and for all of our other important industries, long-term economic growth cannot occur unless we protect the environment that sustains us. Ed Muskie taught us all that, and I was proud to work by his side when we finally ended the pickerel vs. payrolls myth by writing and implementing the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Playing an instrumental role in those efforts, in the Senate and later in the White House, is one of my proudest personal accomplishments.

We can have a vibrant, innovative pulp and paper industry side by side with a tourism, recreation and hospitality industry that is second to none in America.  We can generate lower-cost electricity from renewable resources that can make our farms year-round producers for markets throughout eastern North America. Our marine resources and our bold and spectacular coast bless us with a competitive advantage that no other state can match.

It’s no longer either/or when it comes to business and the environment. The challenge is simply this: The livable communities that make us so proud as Mainers are only “livable” so long as the folks who live there can earn a living. You can’t eat the view. If we recognize the competitive advantages that we have, protect them and make focused investments in them, people from all over the world will beat a path to our door.

TMV:Maine is full of great people, great communities, and great natural beauty.  Of all of the wonderful things about this state what do you enjoy the most?

I don’t think you can separate the people from the place. The things I love most about Maine are the resourcefulness and generosity – the decentness, if that is a word – of our people, the special places we each cherish, and the civic culture of respect and tolerance that reinforces the strong bonds of our communities.

When I am away from Maine, and I am asked where I’m from, I don’t say that I’m from Bangor or Portland or Cape Elizabeth or Hancock. I say that I’m from Maine.

And when I return to Maine, as soon as I cross the bridge in Kittery or in Calais, or cross the border in Fryeburg, Upton, Madawaska or Houlton, I am in Maine – and I am home.

I think most Maine people feel that way, but we don’t always act that way. If we realize that we are one great state, if we invest together in our extraordinary human and natural resources, if we all protect and nurture the civic culture that makes Maine unique, and if we cooperate with each other to bring change where change is needed – then we can turn old burdens, ancient assumptions and tired equations on their heads.

When I become governor, part of my job will be to bring all of Maine together as One Maine — one Maine community, with shared confidence and optimism, with one set of common interests and with one strategy for success.

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