Exclusive Interview by Ramona du Houx
October 13, 2010
Libby Mitchell at a rally for her with President Clinton in Portland, Maine Photo by Ramona du Houx
Libby Mitchell’s strength is in her ability to work with people to achieve the greater good for all the people of Maine. When drastic cuts were looming in social services she found alternative solutions, at the same time she ensured Maine state spending declined. Maine’s budget is now at the same level as it was in 2001. When Maine’s downtown’s needed a boost to revitalize historic buildings she fought for incentives to restore them. As a result Maine’s creative economy is flourishing in many downtown communities. She’s succeeded in passing legislation to help business growth, research and development, healthcare and education. Modest, she doesn’t boast about her achievements. She’s a problem solver with a clear direction to move Maine forward in the emerging clean energy economy.
Recently Mitchell, sat down for an exclusive interview:
Why are you running for Governor?
“As governor you can implement a strategic vision for the state. As a legislator you write individual bills but don’t have the opportunity to guide the state to where it needs to go. I believe I have the experience to move Maine forward to growth and prosperity.”
We’re coming out of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Most people want to know how you will grow jobs?
“The state has to be a partner with the public to grow jobs. We have a lot of niche markets that we need to energize and encourage with incentives. We must look at what Maine is going to be in this new century. Our industries are changing; paper mills don’t employ as many people because they have new technologies. In manufacturing, composite products are on the rise. Many companies have or are working with the UMaine composite center to develop high-tech products. Like Kenway builds boats, here in Augusta. They are working with fiberglass composites and are looking into manufacturing windmills. There are also manufacturing clusters in biotechnology. We have a lot of expertise in the state.
“Most job growth will be coming from small business entrepreneurs. Our small businesses are the engine of the Maine economy. We need to help them expand.”
“With seed capital, which is really a form of venture capital. It takes capital to get a great idea commercialized and put on the market. We have a tax credit now, but it needs to be strengthened — by incentivizing it from 40 percent to 60 percent, while making it refundable.”
“A lot of capital isn’t in Maine. If you don’t pay taxes in Maine, a tax credit is no good to you, but if it is a refundable tax credit you can put your money into a Maine venture and still benefit. It’s a real incentive for out-of-state investors to put their money into Maine.
“A few years back we passed an incentive for renovating historic buildings. The focus was to turn our downtowns into livable communities, and it’s working. The Hathaway Center in Waterville used those incentives — it is an excellent example of what can be done.
“We need jobs that pay a livable wage and give new opportunities for people to become entrepreneurs. We need to have good-paying jobs to keep our young entrepreneurs here and to attract those who have left, back to the state. Improving the Seed Capital Tax Credit is a start.”
What State agencies can help?
“Economic development needs to be a whole structural development, not one business at a time. The Department of Economic and Community Development should be merged with the State Planning Office to address business needs, job creation, and economic growth, while we protect our environment, which protects and grows our quality of life.
“The new Office of Strategic Initiatives and Job Creation would reduce state government, while encouraging job growth in the private sector. I’d appoint a business council, made up of business, educational, labor, and environmental leaders to test the plans and to make sure they make sense in the real world.
“I also want to create a rapid-response team to help businesses before it’s to late, so they don’t have to close.”
How will you help traditional industries?
“We need to look at our strengths. New bond proposals will help. We have great natural resources, with our people, our mountains, farmlands, forests, and oceans. We can sustain our natural resources, while using them to help grow our economy.
“The working waterfront needs to be protected, so our fishermen can have access to the coast, to earn their living while keeping our heritage alive. Farming is a traditional Maine way of life for many, but it’s a hard way to make a living. We know how important local farming is to the health of local economies. Farmers and fishermen love what they do. We were able to preserve and protect some working waterfronts and farmlands through Land For Maine’s Future. More needs to be done.
“Making sure people have access to farm-fresh food and fish will improve their health as well as the lives and livelihoods of our fishing and farming communities. The Farm and Bait to Plate Program will help farmers and fishermen. The program will require that at least twenty-five percent of food served in schools, prisons, and state facilities be locally farmed and fished.
“We need to process more lobsters in Maine, instead of selling them inexpensively only to have them processed in another state, or Canada. We can do that here, which would employ more workers. We have an excellent oyster farm in Damariscotta. Their oysters are in high demand.
“We need to build on our natural resources, adding value to them, and adding small businesses to the state.”
The 124th Legislature worked intensively on clean-energy issues, producing 39 energy laws, which passed unanimously, creating a foundation for growth in this sector. This is all part of the clean-energy revolution, which the Obama administration says will be like the Industrial Revolution. Will you continue to promote Maine as a clean-energy producer?
“Yes, it’s a clear way to help grow our economy. Maine uses fossil fuels for over 80 percent of its energy needs. We established the goal to weatherize all residences and 50 percent of businesses by 2030 and reduce the state’s consumption of liquid fossil fuels by at least 30 percent by 2030. We can do more with biomass, solar, and wind — on land and offshore. The excess electricity could easily be sold to our neighbors to the south. Also, natural gas needs to be more affordable and available. We need to create a public-private partnership to run natural gas lines to Augusta, Waterville, and Brunswick.
President Bill Clinton came to Maine to help Libby Mitchell with her campaign for Governor. photo by Ramona du Houx
“I also propose a guaranteed loan to municipalities to weatherize their schools, so the money can go back into the classroom, instead of up the chimney. They will be able to pay back the loan with the savings made from weatherization.
“We send $5 billion a year out of Maine for fossil fuels. I want to cut that by one billion, by doing more renewable-energy projects and energy-conservation projects in the state. If we can reduce that to $4 billion over the next 20 years, a billion dollars will be put back into Maine’s people’s pockets. Producing more clean energy reduces our carbon footprint and will keep money circulating in Maine’s economy.
“A man came up to me and told me how much the weatherization programs meant for him and his construction workers. He was able to keep his workforce employed by transitioning to weatherizing homes. We have one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation, and we are the most oil-dependent state for heating. The weatherization of homes means good employment for years to come.”
A bond issue for $9.75 million on November’s ballot will increase Land for Maine’s Future funding. LePage does not support it; he has said, “I look at bonds as another form of taxation.” What do you think about that?
“I support more bond proposals for transportation, infrastructure, the environment, and research and development. Maine has a great bond rating. We need to invest in people with bonds to help grow our economy.
“Working in state government, you have to keep the people’s needs first and foremost in your actions with every issue — not the needs of big corporations that could hurt Maine’s quality of life. Maintaining environmental regulations are important for Maine’s quality of life and business growth. My opponent wants to get rid of environmental protections.
“We have strikingly different values, especially in what we would do with our environment.
“I favor the Land for Maine’s Future bond program; he does not want any bonds. LePage says he doesn’t want to take any federal funding beyond what we send to Washington. He has said in debates that he wants to abolish the departments of education, environment, and conservation — that is his vision.
“That’s just not practical. A lot of our education funds, health-care, human service, and public safety funds all come from Washington. Drastic cuts would have to be made if we didn’t get those funds. And we have to disperse the funds, by federal law, through our departments.
“LePage is in favor of nuclear power and offshore drilling. We still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste stored at Maine Yankee in Wiscasset. The federal government was supposed to dispose of it, but it is still being stored at the shut-down nuclear facility.
“Why would we want to drill off the coast of Maine, when we just experienced this horrible BP disaster? We really don’t know how many generations it will take to restore that ecosystem. The lives and livelihoods of all those fisherman and their families have been turned upside-down overnight.
“If you don’t need to do it — then why do it? Our geography gives us a great advantage for ocean energy in wind and tidal. If anything happens to a wind tower, on- or offshore, it wouldn’t compare to the BP disaster. LePage has said publicly in a debate that he does not support the state’s wind-energy goals. In 2008, the Legislature set a goal of producing two gigawatts of wind power by 2020.”
You fought hard for a bond package this session, why?
“It put 2,000 people to work in infrastructure projects for roads, bridges, railroads, waterworks, and educational facilities. The bond package was the very last item of business. Everyone wanted the session to end. But we didn’t have the votes. So I recessed the Senate. Over that weekend, we brought together Republicans and Democrats to negotiate what it would take to pass a bond issue. Too much was at risk not to do it. We weren’t going home until we got it done. And Maine voters agreed with us.
“Working with both sides is important. It’s how you accomplish things in government, for all the people.”
You know State government inside and out, being the first woman in America to serve as both the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House. Your legislative service includes nine terms in the House and three in the Senate. Is that experience important?
“I believe it is. I can hit the ground running because of my experience. My opponents would like to characterize me as being part of the ‘status quo.’ I’ve never been in the status quo.
“You run for the Legislature because you want to change things. Whether it’s getting toxins out of baby bottles or whether it’s getting kids access to health insurance, or investing in renewable energy — you do it because you want to make a difference.
You listened to the needs of the dental health community in Maine, and last session you put forth a bond issue for a dental school in Maine?
“It will be on the ballot this November. Maine is facing a crisis with many dentists retiring over the next few years. We’ve always had a shortage of dentists and dental hygienists in rural Maine. The bond issue will establish a dental school, which will train Maine people.”
You are a former teacher, with a degree in education and another in law. Maine was the first state to receive funding for Head Start because of you. How do you propose to improve education in Maine?
“Only half of the schools in Maine have preschool. I want all children to have that opportunity. It would reduce money we spend in their later years on special education or remedial services. Early education gives you early intervention.
“Standards are an important benchmark. By the third grade everyone in Maine will have to know how to read; that will be mandatory.
“In Jackman schools, they have been implementing higher standards, to keep kids in school and make sure that they are prepared. And they are having great success. In Portland at the King Middle School, the principal pulled everyone together and turned a failing school around. It’s now a national model. My two grandchildren go to that school. Sophie, my eleven-year-old grandchild came up to me one day and said, ‘Mimi, I’m going to a business brunch today.’ I was surprised, and she explained that she was going to interview several small business, and came back home, wrote a business plan, and presented it to her class. It’s great — it’s planting the seeds of entrepreneurship at a young age and inspires children in writing, interviewing, and exploring.
“We have pockets of great success all around Maine. I want to share those best practices, and implement them to cut the dropout rate.
“Jobs for Maine Graduates is another wonderful program which is a private-public partnership. It succeeds in taking kids who are at risk of dropping out and turning them around. Eighty to ninety percent that attend JMG graduate from high school, and many seek higher education. I’d like to see it or similar programs in all our schools.
“We have to increase the number of students going to universities or community colleges. We need educated, young people to create jobs here; they are the innovators of our future.
“The reality is a lot of Maine’s workforce is getting ready to retire, in all sectors of the job market. They will need to be replaced by young, educated workers. Our community colleges will need to play an even larger roll in the near future. Our community college system is the second best in the country, and has a waiting list of over 3,000 students.
“I want the different campuses of our University of Maine System and Community College System to share their expertise.
“Southern Maine Community College and UMaine are offering programs at Brunswick Landing. SMCC, because of a recent bond issue, will be teaching composites at the former Naval air station. UMaine will offer engineering and their composite expertise. Because of this, Kestrel Aircraft chose Brunswick Landing to start their business — saying we have the workforce expertise in composites. It’s a great example of how a community college can work with the University of Maine. It builds a synergy of opportunities. Because we now have the composite technology available at Brunswick Landing, windmill blade manufacturers may go there.
“I want to make sure our higher education institutions all work together, so more opportunities happen and to ensure anyone anywhere in Maine can get a world-class education.”
How will you pay for these improvements to education?
“I want the State to renegotiate our contract for liquor sales. That would generate additional funding, which could be put into a scholarship program for first-year students. It would be a trust fund, which the private sector could match. We need to open the door to college for more students.”
How did you help navigate the state through the recession, working with the governor and leadership?
“It was hard, but we all came together for the people of Maine. We didn’t increase broad-based taxes, because in a recession that would have made things worse. We continued to protect our most vulnerable citizens, while streamlining services. General Fund expenditures are lower now than they were in 2008.
“Maine is in the middle of the pack when it comes to taxes. It is a priority of mine to reduce the state’s top income-tax rate of 8.5 percent, which will make the state more attractive for businesses and help our citizens.”
The Mitchells live in Vassalboro. They have four children and six grandchildren. You came here in 1971 and stayed, why?
“We fell in love with Maine and never left; we’re still living in the same 1840s farmhouse. All our kids left Maine for education or to travel, but they are back. Maine is special; I want to ensure there are opportunities for all our children to make a good living and to enjoy Maine’s quality of life.”