Fact-checking the gubernatorial debate

In the first gubernatorial debate, featuring six topic-based questions that candidates had not received in advance, the facts and figures about Maine’s economy, government and people were flying fast — sometimes too fast.

I’ll echo debate moderator and Portland Regional Chamber President Chris Hall’s caution that it’s difficult to juggle those kinds of numbers for questions not presented in advance.

Below, I’ve added some context to the facts of the day. While there were no real pants-on-fire claims, there were some mistakes and the shading given to these facts and figures illuminates the outlook of the candidates and what story they are trying to tell about the last four years and the next.

We’ll start from the top, with each claim in bold.

Medicaid expansion would only cover 20,000 people at 100 percent. Medicaid expansion is one of the clearest distinctions between the candidates, and the case against it is one Republican Gov. Paul LePage has had to make regularly with a Democratically controlled Legislature. LePage on Wednesday said that expansion of Medicaid would only cover 100 percent of costs for about 20,000 of those who would gain coverage.

That has numbers from the Maine Hospital Association — which supports expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — backwards. The MHA said in a recent report Medicaid expansion would have the federal government cover 100 percent of costs for adding about 56,000 people, through 2016. Federal payments to cover that group would ratchet down to 90 percent by 2020, with the state making up the rest of the costs.

For about 15,000 parents of children covered by Medicaid, the federal government would pay only 62% of the costs — the standard reimbursement rate for Medicaid.

While there is some wiggle room in estimates of the scope of Medicaid expansion, ranging from the 71,000 estimated by the MHA to up to 100,000 from the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, the number of people for whom the federal government would pay full reimbursements is much higher than 20,000.

Ricker Hamilton, deputy commissioner of programs for Maine’s DHHS, wrote to the Bangor Daily News in May that about 14,000 parents of children receiving Medicaid would get the standard reimbursement rate of 62 percent from the federal government.

A higher minimum wage leads to economic growth. Democrat Mike Michaud echoed this statement Wednesday, but the causal connection between wage growth is still unclear because it’s difficult to isolate that variable among all of the others affecting economic growth. The claim comes from the fact 13 states raised their minimum wages Jan. 1 and have this year seen faster economic growth than the rest of the country.

Economists have noted that doesn’t mean a direct causal relationship between the minimum wage hike and economic growth, but it has become a talking point for advocates of raising the minimum wage.

Incomes in Maine are 40% behind rest of New England. Independent Eliot Cutler said Maine incomes are 40 percent behind the rest of the region. Maine’s household or personal incomes are lower but not by that amount. Based on census figures from surveys taken in 2011-2013, median household incomes in Maine are 23 percent behind the region. For per-capita personal income — that is, the amount of total personal income earned in the state divided by the total population — Maine is about 19.5 percent behind the rest of the region, at $38,516, in 2012.

52% of high school grads need remedial work in college. LePage didn’t specify during debates that this figure refers only to the community colleges in the state.

The community colleges reported that 52.2 percent of freshmen coming directly from high school needed remedial coursework last fall. The number for the University of Maine System was substantially lower, at 11.4 percent. For the university system, a lower percentage of students required remedial work in 2013 than in 2012. That percentage increased in 2013 by 2 percentage points at the community college level.

The figures became available starting in the fall of 2012 after passage of a state law requiring such reports from the University of Maine and the Maine Community College systems.

Maine hospitals are “in the red” or on their way there. Cutler said the state’s hospitals are losing money or on the way to losing money. According to a Maine Hospital Association study published last month, 23 of 37 Maine hospitals reported negative operating margins in 2013. The trajectory for those not running at a loss is unclear, but Cutler’s right that the financial picture for the state’s hospitals is not great. The MHA says the standard aggregate profit margin across all hospitals is 2 percent. It was 0.1 percent in 2013.

“The best wages in America.” LePage said that Maine Maritime Academy is an example of success in higher education in Maine, stating that the college “has the best starting wages in America.” The school performed well but was 12th, not first, in a list comparing the cost of a degree to average early career earnings.

The school’s degree was estimated to cost $105,000 and return about $64,100 in annual early career wages.

Maine has the youngest farmers. There was a lot of confusion about the average age of farmers during Wednesday’s debate. Michaud said at one point the state has the youngest per capita population of farmers in the country. I’ve not done the math on farmers ages 25 to 35 compared with the total population, but in the debates that statement was interpreted as Maine having the greatest share of young farmers of any state in the country.

LePage corrected Michaud, saying that Maine doesn’t have the youngest farmers in the country, noting that the average age is 59. Well, that’s two years off, too.

Here are the facts on farmers: The average age for primary farm operators was 57 in 2012. In that year, with the most recent data available, Maine was ninth for the having the lowest average age of farmers in the country. The average age of farmers in New York was slightly higher and those in North Dakota slightly lower.

So, Maine’s farmers are among the youngest in the country.

That said, the number of young farmers in Maine is growing faster than the rest of the country, a positive trend for the state that is verifiably the oldest in the country.

97% of Maine businesses are small businesses. This is an oft-repeated assertion from the U.S. Small Business Administration that regularly needs clarification. The SBA counts any company with fewer than 500 employees in tabulating this figure.

Maybe it’s just me, but when politicians talk about small business — particularly in Maine — I don’t think of companies with up to 500 workers.

That said, the number of small employers in the state is substantial. A 2012 survey from the SBA indicates about 42 percent of Maine’s workforce is employed at companies with fewer than 100 employees. Michaud used this number Wednesday, but it’s one that is regularly deployed when talking about the state’s economy.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.