On the issues

Q&A: Maine House District 95 Candidate Bill Pluecker

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 8:45pm

    Bill Pluecker, I-Warren: I have been farming and raising my family in Warren for 10 years, and in the years before that, we leased farmland in Warren, Friendship and Newcastle. In that time, we have seen the development in the towns around us as businesses move in and property values skyrocket, but to a large part, our towns haven't been part of that progress. This is what is moving me to do my part, to build the economy of our district, and to run for the State House.

    Our family has seen our farm, Hatchet Cove Farm, grow through the years by building strong relationships with our customers and community. As our two young children, Eli and Cecilia, have grown, we have taught them that hard work and perseverance only really pay off when you have a community around you that is benefiting from the hours you are putting in. As a farm, we were one of the first in the state to accept SNAP benefits for our Community Farm Share program. We also raise funds through grants and donations, so that folks with SNAP benefits that aren’t able to cover the cost of the season's vegetables, themselves, are able to have access to fresh, healthy produce. As a farm and as a community, we make smart choices, through prudent management and generosity. That means that when our business succeeds, the community around us is also moved forward.


    What are the three most pressing issues facing Maine today, and how would you like to see them resolved?

    The first conversation I have been having with voters, when we start talking at their door, is about property taxes. As a funding mechanism for our schools, local property taxes is a broken system. The original thought behind local taxes paying for local schools made sense at the time. If a town wanted to put more money into their schools, then they would charge themselves more to fund those schools, and conversely if taxes were too high, then we would cut the school budgets and taxes would go down. That process no longer works. There are so many mandates coming from the both the state and federal governments dictating the minimums that need to be met in the schools, that local school budget committees don't have the control they once did to affect changes in the budget.

    Our schools are also providing many more services than just education for our children. They are providing meals for kids who might not be getting enough at home, as well as mental health services for kids with learning impairments.

    If we are going to see increased mandates from the state, it only makes sense that we see increased funding from the state. In 2004, Maine voters passed the ballot initiative that called for this, and it is time that we follow through on the will of the voters and properly fund the schools.

    When we do this, we will take the pressure off our towns to increase property taxes every year as most of our those taxes are used to fund the schools. Property taxes disproportionately affect working families, small businesses and older adults on fixed incomes. These are exactly the groups of people that we need to build our communities. Families are working in our local businesses who are raising the kids in whom we all take so much pride and our hopes for Maine's future reside. Small businesses are putting capital investments back into our communities and providing good jobs which we all depend on. Older folk have been the bedrock of our communities through the years, paying property taxes, serving on local committees, and teaching future generations in so many ways. It is not fair to see the burden of property taxes pushed onto these people in our community, and as a community, we can't afford to have these folks pushed out of their homes.

    Finally, healthcare is an issue which we are all confronted with every day. Whether we are on the lower end of the economic ladder or the higher end, we are all human, and we all get sick. We are all facing the challenges of trying to pay for health care in a way that allows us a sense of economic security.

    If my family was living in one of the other states in New England, we would not have to pay our monthly health insurance premium because they have all expanded Medicaid. That is $300 a month in what I call a "health care tax" that we pay for the privilege of living in Maine. Those "taxes" aren't going to the State, though.They are going to the insurance companies and lining their pockets. It is time that we stop sending those premiums out to insurance companies and start keeping those dollars in the pockets of working families.

    For all of the families in our district, health insurance premiums are skyrocketing and making it harder for families and older people to afford the health care they need. It is time that we bring those rates under control by increasing competition among the insurance companies. On our healthcare exchange, we only have 2 or 3 companies competing for our business depending on the year. We need to make sure that all policies meet certain minimums, such as accepting folks with pre-existing conditions and offering plans for dependent child coverage for adult children through age 26, and encourage more companies to come into Maine and start competing for the policies that we are all paying for.

     Penobscot Bay Pilot has posed questions to each candidate running for District Attorney, Maine Senate and Legislature, providing the opportunity for the public to better understand their position on issues important to the state. The candidates have responded with their individual written answers.

    We need to make sure our district and Maine is a place where people are able to live comfortably. This needs to be a place where they know they won't be pushed out of their homes by increasing property taxes, that public schools are well and responsibly funded, and our healthcare premiums are being spent on patients, not lining the pockets of insurance companies.


    How will you protect the local (municipal) taxpayer as you help shape a state budget?

    We need to know that our property taxes are not going to continue to increase year after year. The State, in its drive to balance its budget, has been pushing more and more expenses onto the towns: school budgets, road maintenance, and reducing its Cost-Sharing payments. Instead of living up to its responsibility to properly fund schools, roads, and returning a share of sales taxes to the towns, they expect us to cover for their inability to properly manage their resources. So the question comes down to: do we want the town to use the only large mechanism we have to raise money, property taxes or do we want the State to do it through a mix of sales tax, income tax, and fees. The State has the ability to be creative and even-handed when it comes to taxes and fees, so that it isn't just coming out of the pockets of working families, small businesses, and older adults on fixed incomes. Unless the political parties learn how to govern without the bickering and posturing, there will continue to be a lack of oversight and management, and they will be unable to release the pressure the State is putting on our property taxes.


    Scientists have reported that the Gulf of Maine is warming (Gulf of Maine experiences marine heat wave, scientists say: penbaypilot.com/article/gulf-maine-experiences-marine-heat-wave-scientists-say/106929) and Senators Collins, King push for research into warming of Gulf of Maine, penbaypilot.com/article/senators-collins-king-push-research-warming-gulf-maine/101228.

    How will you work to ensure that Maine’s fisheries are vital and productive, and that the habitat and marine life are protected?

    As someone who has to deal with the oversight and bureaucracy of the government when running my small business, I know that there is real knowledge and experience in the people who are growing and catching the food that "experts" in the government don't have access to. Fishermen have every reason to preserve our marine resources for generations to come, and their knowledge and experience should be consulted on any marine resource conservation programs that are to be put into place.

    We know that the waters are warming, and we know that our ultimate aim is to make sure that our fisheries continue to support the families and our economy that depends on them. As a farmer dealing with our drier hotter summers, I know that diversifying my marketing, and investing in infrastructure, like irrigation, which will enable me to continue to produce vegetables in our new climate is not only smart, but necessary. I would encourage the same sort of thinking for our fisheries. How can we diversify the marketing of our products so that we can increase prices while our supply shrinks? What new products might we take advantage of as a result of the changing environment, such as oyster farms or seaweed? Finally, can we create grants for fishermen who are ready to make capital investments that can see them and their families through these environmental challenges?

    Since before we were a state, we have been investing in and profiting from our fisheries. With the infrastructure we have, boats, wharves, and the experience of the people in those industries, it is time we make ourselves ready for the next opportunity coming from our waters.


    What are your positions on energy policies and use of renewable energy (solar, wind, tidal turbine)? Should the state of Maine encourage renewables with tax and policy development?

    With two great solar companies essentially growing out of our backyard, Revision Energy and Sundog Solar, how can we not want to grow renewable energy companies in our district? We can become leaders in this industry. As a state, we have long had a strong sense of independence and self-determination, and the ability to generate one's own electricity and not have to depend on CMP, or anyone else, for our energy just makes common sense. These are potentially good jobs that we need to make sure are here for our kids, so that they have an industry to plug into when they graduate from school. There is no way that we should prioritize the importation of fuel from other countries, outsourcing the jobs we need, when we can keep those jobs here in our state.

    We are on the edge of creating a strong new sustainability based building industry in our state, and its time to look to the future and take advantage of our opportunities.


    How do you want to see Maine laws governing the commercial growth and sale of marijuana to evolve?

    Once again, we have an opportunity to bring a new industry into our state. I have heard of hemp and marijuana farms going into production all over the state, including our own district. As we see some of our traditional farming, such as dairy, challenged by commodity pricing, many of our older farms are closing. It is possible that some of that land can be used in the production of marijuana and hemp. Hemp can be used to extract CBD as a pain relieving medicine that does not have the effect of getting someone high. After the extraction it can be used for producing fiber to create ropes, clothing and even sailboat canvasses.

    We do want to make sure that retail sales are regulated and taxed accordingly - which can serve to lighten the load on taxpayers. We want to make sure that we are not exposing our children to possible harm, and that our towns' essential nature and feel are preserved as retail stores begin to open.

    It is time to pass legislation that will take advantage of these opportunities and bring a new industry to Maine.


    What issues are emerging from your conversations with the public as you go about your campaign, and what solutions do you envision?

    Property taxes, affordable health care, and bringing jobs and development to our district are certainly the top issues that voters  are talking to me about at their doors. It is time to make it possible to invest in our communities, and small businesses should know that they aren't going to get taxed more heavily for the investment they have made. The people, that have lived in our communities for years and have seen their property values and mil rates climb, need to know that they will be able to afford their homes and not get pushed out of them by property taxes. We also need to know that when we have finished educating our kids, they won't have to leave the state to find a job that pays well. We all need a State Representative that prioritizes economic development and good paying jobs with benefits that we know will be there even after the tourists have gone home.


    Voters approved expansion of Medicaid. How do you want to see that implemented and funded?

    As a farm, our income varies from year to year with the rain and the sun. My kids qualified for Medicaid for the first several years of their lives. A couple years ago our income increased by $500 annually and that was enough for my kids to be kicked out of the program. We now have a family insurance policy with an approximately $5,000 annual deductible for each of us, and $10,000 family deductible, not to mention the increase in annual premiums. Now we pay $3,600 annually for the chance to pay up to $10,000 if two people in our family were hurt. What do you say to your kids who want to go out and play? If someone falls and breaks and arm, it will be $5,000. Is that the way we want to live our lives?

    It is time to affirm the choice of voters and expand Medicaid coverage. We are the only state in New England to not have done so. We are choosing to charge the people in our state who would receive coverage anywhere else in New England. Why don't we choose to keep those payments in our state rather than sending it off to the insurance companies every month? When the federal government is ready to give us many times what we are ready to invest, why wouldn't we take the money that the other states are already taking? We can cover the costs with money already existing in the state budget. Let's make that money work for itself, taking advantage of the extra funding from the federal government, and keeping those premiums in the pockets of Mainers that we are sending to insurance companies.


    What is your position on the proposed 145-mile Central Maine Power transmission line that the company hopes to build from Quebec, through Beattie Township, and the expansion of 92 miles of existing corridor to Lewiston, and another 26.5 miles from Windsor to Wiscasset?

    Paying for Canadian power, cutting through our North Woods and natural landmarks, and delivering it to Massachusetts, doesn't make a lot of sense for anybody but CMP and Massachusetts rate payers. Yes, it would provide short term jobs for the cutting of the woods and building of the lines, but the long term investment in power generation is all going to Canada. We need those jobs in Maine. It would make so much more sense for us to be able to build those solar, hydro, and wind power installations in Maine and see the long term income from their construction, maintenance, and power sales come to our state rather than Canada. Why are we the ones who need to sacrifice the tourist dollars coming to see Maine’s beauty for CMP and Canadian profits?


    Two young Maine children were killed under horrific circumstances in 2017. How would you improve the caliber of DHHS, specifically child protective services?

    We need to recognize that children are fundamentally the future of our state. When we fall down in our attempt to care for the most at risk children in our communities, we have failed as a community and as a state. For a long time, the state has prioritized the administration and supervision of the case workers in DHHS over the workers, themselves,  who are actually on the front line doing the work of going into at-risk homes and intervening when necessary. It is time that we step up and directly support those workers who are getting the children out of abusive and dangerous situations. It is about those people being supported, trained, and advised so that they know that there is a community of people and supervisors standing by to help them in their hard work.

    Specifically, we need to fill open positions that already exist in DHHS. We need to make sure that those caseworkers have access to all the information they need when making decisions about the welfare of the children they are working with whether that info is from federal databases or school records. We need to increase supervision and tracking of the cases that warrant extra attention and make sure that there are no children slipping through the cracks. If children are living in homes where there is a history of substance abuse, we need to make sure that the children are getting the support and education they need to not follow in the path of the role models they see around them, and the families need to know what resources are available, so they know that they are supported in their efforts to stay sober and healthy. If we don't make these changes in our state, as taxpayers, we will be paying the economic price for years to come as we pay to support the children who aren't able to break the cycles they were born into.  


    What committees would you like to serve on and why?

    A natural fit for my experience in life would be to work on the Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Committee. As a farmer for the last 14 years I have a deep knowledge and understanding of what it takes to run and maintain a farm business in our state. As farming is taking new shapes in our state, building diverse products and markets that support our farming families and infrastructure, I am able to apply my experience as a business person and farmer to supporting farmers and their adaptations. Old models are becoming harder and harder to support as commodity pricing of dairy, potatoes, and blueberries squeeze farming families. We also want to know that we are preserving and regenerating our farming soils as food resources become more valuable as New England's population increases in the decades to come. Maine was once the breadbasket of New England and I expect it will be again, providing food and jobs for years to come. The farms of the future will not look the same as the ones we see today. There will be a lot more diversification of products from prepared items, to organic produce, and livestock products. We will steer away from the items that are sold in commodity markets which force farmers to ride the ups and downs while their costs stay constant.

    I own about 80 acres of woodland and have worked with our local forester to build our forest management plan. We have done a selective cut on the land and in the process, learned a lot about the process of getting logs out of the forest and to the mill where we hope to get a good price. I have seen the mills closing in our part of the state and know that makes it harder for small woodlot owners earn a profit or even cover the cost of property taxes. We want to preserve these woodlots because they help provide jobs for loggers, truckers, foresters, mills, and the property owners. These woods also are the home to our deer, turkey, and moose that we hunt to feed our families and provide tourism dollars for the hunters coming here from other states. We need to make sure that owning them stay a viable economic option.

    My farmland is under a conservation easement with Georges River Land Trust, and we are also enrolled in the Forever Farm program run with Maine Farmland Trust. We want to make sure that there is sustainable development of our lands in Maine that allow for new building and economic prosperity but also protecting our natural resources, rivers, hunting, and agricultural way of life. These are issues that are near and dear to my heart and the daily labor that I put into my land as a farmer.


    Maine’s economy relies on small and micro-businesses. How will you help the entrepreneur succeed in this state?

    Running an economically viable small business in rural Maine is a challenge that many of us know. We depend on our friends, family, and neighbors to support us, and they depend on us to provide high quality services and products that they know they can trust. I have been teaching apprentices and new farmers through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener's (MOFGA) training program for over a decade now. Many of those folks have gone on to run their own farming enterprises all over the state from Leeds to Damariscotta, and Wiscasset. I know the hard work and drive but also vision and organization that it takes to get a small business off the ground in rural Maine. If we want new entrepreneurs to be successful in Maine, we need to provide training programs and low interest capital loans for them. They also need access to a State government that is responsive when they call with questions and problems. We have seen the lack of response from the State hold up necessary developments in businesses, and the lack of prompt payments to small business in our district from the State have forced tham to completely change their business model. So we need to communicate to small entrepreneurs that they won't be held up by red tape, and the State government will get out of their way as they get their businesses off the ground and running profitably.


    Does Maine have enough mental health care resources? If not, what needs to improve and how?

    Mental health care is a challenge that our State will be facing for decades to come. Many years ago, I was employed as a Crisis Stabilization worker at the Mid-Coast Mental Health Center. I had a first-person perspective of many challenges that people with a mental health diagnosis face in our state. When people have access to stable housing and consistent food and healthcare, so much can be done to reduce the effects of the their sickness. Our mental health is built around reducing the stresses in our life, and when we enable people to access those resources, their overall ability to cope with life in a healthy way is increased. It is time that we make sure that the most vulnerable and their caregivers in our communities have the support and resources they need to know we won't let them fall through the cracks.

    Our opiate crisis is another aspect to out mental health care services that often goes ignored. When a person becomes addicted to substances, their brain chemistry and biology are permanently changed. They will face the challenges of staying healthy and sober for the rest of their lives. Successfully getting them to a place where they are able to care for themselves without relying on state services is a smart investment for our state. We will be paying for people with substance abuse issues the rest of our lives if we don't provide them the resources they need early on in their lives and addiction. We want them to know they have the support to overcome their addiction and build a new life. Early intervention in these issues will pay back dividends to the taxpayer in the years to come.


    What is your vision for affordable health care?

    We need to know that the overall cost of healthcare is going to come down.  Being given an  outrageous bill after going to the emergency room or for simple medical testing is an all too common experience. Why are we being charged thousands of dollars for routine visits that don't require a lot of time? We need to do a real analysis of medical billing to make sure that this price gouging stops. Who is taking home the money at the end of the day that is driving up the costs of insurance and common procedures? We need to step in and make sure that no one is profiting on someone else's misfortune of getting injured or sick.

    We also need the expansion of Medicaid benefits and increased competition through getting more insurance companies to offer policies in Maine. If we are able to increase competition among health insurance providers, take advantage of federal dollars that have been made available to reduce health care costs for working families, and increase oversight of medical billing, we will see the overall effects of healthcare costs on Maine families improve.


    Maine has built up a fiscal surplus. How should it be used?

    How do you put money to work for you instead of working for your money? We make sure that we put that money into programming and investments that will return dividends for us far into the future. I teach classes on business enterprise budgets to my apprentices and farmers-in-training through MOFGA. In those classes, I teach that you begin with a financial analysis of any investment in your farm, and you know, without a doubt, when and how those investments are going to pay for themselves and return a profit. As farmers and as business people, we don't have the leeway to sit on a lot of capital and wait to see if we are going to need it in the future. We are always looking at our markets and production capacity to see where the next opportunity is. Where do I need to investment my money so that I can stay ahead of the curve and one step ahead of my competition? Oftentimes, when you wait to see what problems are going to emerge, you have lost the opportunity for a strategic investment.

    This is the same approach we need to take to our rainy day fund. Where can that money be used to return dividends to us in our future? Where can we head off problems, like the opiate crisis, that are liable to grow and overwhelm us if we wait to address them? If the federal government is ready to give us two dollars for every one we invest in health care, how do we take advantage of the money they are offering and make sure that it is reducing costs down the line? It is only a lack of innovation and hard work that keeps us from investing our money into programming that will save us tax dollars down the line.

    It is time to take a common sense approach to our surplus, and make it pay back to the communities that earned it in the first place.


    What are your positions on the following November ballot questions?

    • Question 1: “Do you want to create the Universal Home Care Program to provide home-based assistance to people with disabilities and senior citizens, regardless of income, funded by a new 3.8% tax on individuals and families with Maine wage and adjusted gross income above the amount subject to Social Security taxes, which is $128,400 in 2018?"

    I have problems with several areas of this proposed program. As I have stated earlier, we want to see our tax dollars spent in such a way that they create a savings for us down the line. In this case, we are increasing taxes on individuals and families that are at a relatively low level of income. Many people will be seeing an increase in their taxes as a result of this question. We are currently also dealing with a large scale issue in our state with the affordability of healthcare with many families unable to afford basic services, and up to this point, there has not been the expectation that people with health issues should have the right to get all their care in their home. It makes sense that folks with a higher level of need might need to go to nursing care facilities. Many folks are going broke trying to afford the care they need in nursing homes and hospitals, but we are going to target folks who stay at home with this program? It doesn't make a lot of sense for the extraordinary price we would have to pay for it.

    This program also sets up a board to administer it. I definitely have questions about giving this board such extraordinary power in how this money is dispersed. It makes sense that this issue should be brought back up in the legislature to go through a more rigorous process of discussion and negotiation to find a way of meeting the needs of home healthcare workers and the people they serve.


    • Question 2: “Do you favor a $30,000,000 bond issue to improve water quality, support the planning and construction of wastewater treatment facilities and assist homeowners whose homes are served by substandard or malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems?”

    Funding our necessary infrastructure upgrades through bond questions is something that has been going on in Maine for years now. It is a highly questionable process. Of course we need to prioritize clean water in our state for tourism, fishing, and general protection of our waterways, but why can't we address these issues in the legislature and fund these program costs out of the general fund rather than having to borrow money and pay interest down the line? I would support the upkeep of our wastewater treatment plants and systems, because the alternative is gross -polluted waterways, but I think we need to continue to find a less expensive plan that avoids these constant bond questions.


    • Question 3: “Do you favor a $106,000,000 bond issue, including $101,000,000 for construction, reconstruction and rehabilitation of highways and bridges and for facilities and equipment related to ports, piers, harbors, marine transportation, freight and passenger railroads, aviation, transit and bicycle and pedestrian trails, to be used to match an estimated $137,000,000 in federal and other funds, and $5,000,000 for the upgrade of municipal culverts at stream crossings?”

    I have a similar feeling towards all these bond questions - let’s find a cheaper way to fund these bonds. At the same time, I realize that these are necessary improvements to our state infrastructure if we want to continue to import and export products from our state through our railways and ports. I also appreciate that an investment from the state is mirrored by an investment from the federal government. If we were to not accept this money from the federal government, it would not go unspent. It would just go to some other state. We don't want to leave money sitting on the table, and it is up to us to make sure that we invest this money wisely, so that it pays for itself and returns money to the taxpayers in the long run.


    • Question 4: “Do you favor a $49,000,000 bond issue to be matched by at least $49,000,000 in private and public funds to modernize and improve the facilities and infrastructure of Maine's public universities in order to expand workforce development capacity and to attract and retain students to strengthen Maine's economy and future workforce?”

    My kids are going to be attending these universities in a few years. I want them to be as good as they can be, for the good of my kids and all our kids in Maine.  I wish that we had a different funding mechanism to put these improvements into our schools, but it is foolhardy to leave the matching funds sitting on the table. I do appreciate that we will see at least some private funds solicited for this spending, showing that it is not all coming out of taxpayer pockets.


    • Question 5: “Do you favor a $15,000,000 bond issue to improve educational programs by upgrading facilities at all 7 of Maine's community colleges in order to provide Maine people with access to high-skill, low-cost technical and career education?”

    We will often go through approving bond questions, and then feel bad that we have just approved all this borrowing. This final one is asking for the smallest dollar amount, so it would seem that it would be the easiest to deny of the bunch. However, we need to invest in our tech schools. In this time of low unemployment, these are the skills that Maine employers are hungriest for. These are the kids that we want to offer jobs as they come out of the schools, and they are the same kids that we want to keep in our state instead of going away to find higher paying jobs. We need to be competitive in how we educate them, and offer them opportunities that will encourage them to stay in state. At the same time, all these investments in high-skill technical education need to be done with an eye to the marketplace to make sure that we are really investing in the skills that our Maine employers are looking for.  


    Please feel free to expand or add any thoughts here that we have not touched upon.

    It is time that we look beyond the usual way of doing business in government. The two party, partisan battles are creating an ineffective, bureaucratic mess that can't really provide the innovative solutions we need if we are going to see this state grow without forcing all the sacrifice onto the taxpayer. It takes a high level of thought and dialogue to find ways to get the most from each dollar invested.

    These are systemic failures we are facing - property taxes, health care, and responsible education funding - and they start at the top, with the people making the laws that govern us. How do we get our government thinking and talking in a way that looks beyond our ritualistic party politics, and really reflects the needs of the our voters and taxpayers? I think it starts with voting for someone who is not aligned with that system and is ready to work with smart people from any party. Vote for a farmer who is ready to work for the people who put him there, with a vision beyond old party politics.

    William Pluecker