by Craig Crosby
The three women squaring off to represent Senate District 23 say concerns expressed by voters in the district reflect those of the nation: education, health care and energy. Each of the candidates brings to the table experience they believe will help address those concerns.
Democrat Eloise Vitelli, who won a close special election in August 2013 to fill the spot vacated when Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, took a position with the federal government, is running against Republican Linda Baker and Green Independent Alice Knapp.
Senate District 23 includes all of Sagadahoc County and Dresden.
Vitelli, 65, of Arrowsic, has been director of program and policy for Maine Center for Women, Work and Community for the past 34 years. She also served on Arrowsic Union 47 school board for a decade and was chairman of the Sagadahoc Democratic Committee for four years before being elected to the Senate.
Vitelli said she can help find common ground from which lawmakers can work.
“I don’t necessarily see legislation as the answer to everything,” she said. “Sometimes it’s bringing people together that can move Maine forward. I’m a good listener. I can gain the respect of my colleagues whether we agree or not.”
Baker, 66, of Topsham, is retired after more than 30 years as a public school teacher, 26 of which were spent teaching English, history and creative writing at Mount Ararat High School in Topsham. Baker spent a decade working for Merrymeeting Adult Education and continues to teach an adult education course through University College at Bath/Brunswick. Baker also spent eight years with the Topsham finance committee and was a selectman for three years.
Baker said her 31 years in public school classrooms give her a close connection and deep understanding of her communities.
“I think I have a better handle on the social and academic needs,” Baker said. “I believe they’d be honest with me about their concerns.”
Knapp, 54, of Richmond, is an attorney whose area of expertise includes health and municipal law. A former lobbyist, Knapp spent 11 years as an insurance regulator focusing on health insurance with the state Bureau of Insurance. She was appointed in 1999 to serve as the first director of the bureau’s Consumer Health Care Division. Knapp also has held a health law practice for a national law firm before opening her own practice in 2002. Knapp served on the Richmond Planning Board for seven years and was a selectman for six years.
Knapp said she has encountered caring people with good ideas on both sides of the aisle, but neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to admit when one of those ideas emerges from the other side.
“There are wonderful Republicans and Democrats in my district,” Knapp said. “It’s the parties that give me fits. I want to look at things from a new perspective.”
Knapp said her independent bent, coupled with her years of experience in health insurance, gives her a fresh perspective on the state health care system. She agrees with Republicans that the federal Affordable Care Act is largely a failure because premiums are still unaffordable for a large segment of society. Knapp favors a single payer plan more closely connected to Democrats. A state-run, efficient, universal health care system would be “business friendly” and help create jobs, something all three candidates say they are anxious to do. Knapp said she would support efforts to create a single-payer system in Maine.
“The only uninsured people Democrats are talking about are those denied MaineCare expansion, but what about the population Obamacare throws under the bus,” Knapp said. “We’ve got to have a better system.”
Along with health care, the high cost of heating remains a paramount concern for people inside the district, Vitelli said. It was that concern that prompted her to sponsor a solar energy development bill, which in part directs the state Public Utilities Commission to examine the economic and environmental value of solar power within the electrical grid. Lawmakers will use the PUC’s report, which is due in February, to develop policies that offer incentives for the development of solar energy production. In the meantime, the state is already considering a solar rebate program, Vitelli said.
“We need to make those opportunities available to more people in the state,” she said.
Baker said education, particularly paying for it, is a reoccurring concern among voters she’s talked with. She said people are angry that lawmakers have refused to fund 55 percent of education, which is mandated by state law. Lawmakers have instead scaled back state spending, forcing town and city governments to raise property taxes to make up the difference.
Vitelli said meeting the 55 percent threshold will require working with the budget process. The state last year used casino funds to pay for universal pre-kindergarten in Maine, which must now be included in that budget process, Vitelli said.
“We’re going to need to pay attention to how we budget our pre-K through adult ed,” she said. “The state needs to pay its fair share of local education.”
The funding formula for charter schools is creating even more pressure on school systems, Baker said. School districts are on the hook to pay for students who attend charter schools, which can reach about $8,000 per student per school year, Baker said. That money must be found in budgets that voters have already established.
“If you have 10 students that’s an enormous chunk out of what you thought you had to budget,” Baker said. “The concept is great, but the funding for the implementation needs to be reassessed.”
Knapp said lawmakers’ refusal to live up to the 55 percent mandate is only part of the equation when it comes to offering property tax relief. Maine law requires property to be assessed according to its “highest and best use,” which is defined as whatever it would sell for on the open market, Knapp said. Coastal communities have been particularly hard hit.
Baker said people have not only expressed anger about how much money the state collects, but they are upset about how the state spends that money. Baker said people in her district are opposed to giving financial support to immigrants who are here illegally. Voters she has talked to believe that the state’s social programs should be reserved for the most needy citizens, specifically veterans, the elderly and children.
“I would love to be able to help the whole world and feed them, but we can’t afford it,” Baker said. “We need to take care of our own first.”
Baker acknowledged that some people are here illegally because they are fleeing persecution or danger in their home countries.
Knapp said social welfare spending as a whole needs to be adjusted, because Maine is near the top in spending but near the bottom in income.
Baker supports social benefits for those who need it, but the state must do a better job of streamlining the process and weeding out those who are receiving benefits unnecessarily.
Knapp suggested creating additional streams of revenue, including a revolving fund that would help people pay to learn a skill and then take a percentage of their income to pay that money back when they got a job. She argued that there are too many targeted tax breaks to help specific groups. Lawmakers give tax exemptions to groups that are the most visible or vocal, leaving everyone else to pick up the slack, she said.
“There’s a universe of need. We carve out this fabulous subset,” Knapp said. “We need to look at policy that takes into account the common good. I think we need to re-evaluate soup to nuts how we’re doing things.”