FAIRFIELD — The candidates for House District 84 differ on whether the state is headed in the right direction to improve the economy and create jobs for the towns of Fairfield, Rome and Smithfield.
Democratic challenger Karen Kusiak, a lifelong educator, said she thinks the state is on the wrong path. Republican incumbent John Picchiotti, a former insurance agent and businessman, said he would like to see the state continue to make progress on reducing business regulations.
Kusiak emphasized investing in the state’s roads and infrastructure, while Picchiotti spoke more about cutting red tape and energy costs.
Kusiak said she would direct more resources toward state projects with the potential to create jobs and stimulate the economy.
“We need to invest in the infrastructure of the state, improving roads, bridges, and other common networks,” Kusiak said. “Those projects put people to work and they benefit small businesses. Having a well-functioning state will attract people to invest in Maine.”
Picchiotti described the problem of solving the state’s economic woes as a puzzle with many moving parts, including property taxes, health care costs and especially business retention.
“We need to move forward with looking closely at anti-business regulations,” he said. “You can’t destroy the state from an environmental perspective, but some are just ridiculous.”
For example, Picchiotti said he has spoken recently with the owner of a company that builds dams with hydroelectric turbines in them. According to Picchiotti, the business owner told him he has to obtain 27 separate permits, including some federal ones.
“That would be one area I would like to look at to see what we could do without hurting the environment,” he said. “It would be good for us to streamline the process of permitting.”
Picchiotti said lowering energy costs for businesses and consumers also would help boost the local economy.
“We need to get natural gas spread out,” he said. “That would cut energy costs in half.”
Both agree that education will be important to Maine’s future and that the state needs to do more to protect towns from rising education costs.
Kusiak said education funding will benefit the economy as well.
“Strong schools will bring people to our community, and people in our community will provide a demand for business services,” Kusiak said. “I also think we need to continue to invest in education, from pre-K to higher education that includes the university system as well as what we think of as public schools.”
Kusiak said she is concerned about initiatives that have come from the state education department during the last two years.
One policy she cited was a recent change in state law allowing charter schools, which redirects public education dollars away from existing schools.
“Proposals for wide-ranging school choice will undermine local schools,” she said.
She also expressed concern about state education policies influenced by out-of-state companies that sell online classes.
“I think we need to think about who, exactly, is going to benefit,” she said. “Those who are trying to sell goods or services to the people of the state, or the people of the state?”
Kusiak said she is qualified to make good decisions about how to build better schools.
“I would like to be a part of the conversation that shapes education policy,” she said. “My experience provides a strong background for analyzing policies and proposals and having an understanding of what might happen when they’re implemented.”
Kusiak said the state has failed to follow through on a 1985 commitment to fund 55 percent of the essential programs and services administered by kindergarten-through-grade 12 schools.
“They have not funded that,” she said.
Kusiak and Picchiotti agreed that more should be done to prevent the state from shifting costs onto schools and towns.
“Funding for our district is important,” Picchiotti said. He said the school budget represents a large percentage of the property tax bill. “We need a lot of help from the state.”
Picchiotti said Fairfield has been hard-hit by the state’s current education funding formula, which gives more money per student to districts with lower property values. Education in the state also has to be more focused on equipping students to enter the local work force, he said.
“We have jobs here and we can’t fill them,” he said. “Educating our work force is a very big concern.”
He said he knew of employers who had hired people from California because they couldn’t find qualified applicants in the state.
“Two of the most needed professions that some of the companies cannot find in Maine are biotechnology and science fields,” he said.
The candidates agreed that Maine is better off than Washington when it comes to Democrats and Republicans working together. They spoke about what guides their public policy decisions.
For Kusiak, laws should be examined according to their effect on individuals.
“I’m guided by the principle of thinking about who’s going to benefit the most, and I don’t mean individuals who are already doing well,” she said. “We have to think about policies that will help those who need the help the most.”
She said she would compromise in one area if she believed the net effect would improve the lives of her constituents.
“I may have a very strong principle on one issue and realize that it’s connected to other issues that I also care about,” Kusiak said.
Picchiotti said that when working with other lawmakers, he tries to stay focused on accurately representing the will of the voters in his district.
“I try to look at what the majority of my constituents want on a partisan issue. That weighs very heavily on me,” he said.
On a small number of issues, Picchiotti said his personal moral convictions create a line “that I would not cross.”
For example, “marriage should be up to the churches. The state should not be involved with marriage,” he said.
Picchiotti said his own experience, which includes a long list of board appointments to nonprofits, education institutions and business associations, demonstrate his heavy involvement with the community over the past 32 years.
“It gives me a lot of insight within the community,” he said. “You represent the people of the district. You have to know their likes and dislikes. It’s important to be involved.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287