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FREEPORT — Gov. Paul LePage’s latest town hall forum Tuesday night included exchanges between LePage and Freeport state Rep. Sara Gideon, and several constituents who angrily left the event.
LePage opened the meeting at the Freeport Community Library as he has prior forums in other communities, talking for several minutes about ways to reduce the income tax, cut welfare and energy costs, and the problems of student debt and heroin addiction. He then moved on to a question-and-answer session with the overflow crowd of more than 100 people.
Gideon, a Freeport Democrat and the assistant House majority leader, persisted in asking a question despite being rebuffed by LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. Some in the crowd echoed Bennett’s statement that Gideon should instead let her constituents speak, but LePage agreed to hear the question.
Gideon said while she disagrees with many of LePage’s thoughts and ideas, she wants to work with him on a plan to create more jobs in Maine.
“What can we do together to actually do something about jobs, so that we’re not arguing about people on welfare or people who need help moving out of poverty?” she said.
LePage said Gideon should not rely on anecdotal information about issues and should work with her “bosses” in Augusta and have them work with him. Gideon noted that Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond are her peers, not her superiors.
That prompted LePage to tell Gideon if she ever becomes speaker of the House, “which I hope not,” she shouldn’t force others to vote the way she wants them to. He clarified that he hopes no Democratic becomes House speaker, not just Gideon.
LePage’s comment that asylum seekers are “the biggest problem in our state” elicited heckles from some members of the audience. Several people stood up and left the meeting, while shouting “shame on you,” “go to some other town,” and “hit the road.”
James Roux, who has recently been accused of harassing the Freeport Flag Ladies, was among those who were upset by LePage’s comments.
“They’re fleeing war-torn countries,” Roux said to LePage before leaving the meeting. “All they want is help.”
LePage responded to Roux that asylum seekers are different from refugees and that they’re coming from other states, not other countries. Roux argued, but was cut off by Bennett, who was asking everyone to settle down.
Earlier in the evening during his opening remarks, LePage said drug dealers are also a major problem in Maine.
“I believe people selling heroin in this state are murderers,” he said.
LePage emphasized that he believes dealers are the problem, not addicts, and that tougher laws need to be made to punish dealers.
He also spent the first part of the approximately hour-long forum discussing his “vision” for the state and the issues that are “preventing Maine from going from poverty to prosperity.”
LePage said Maine is the highest taxed state in the country and has a low per-capita income compared to other states. He said Maine is also the number one state for second home ownership and that a problem is created by people who live in Maine for only half the year because they don’t pay income tax in the state. The burden then falls to full-time residents, he said.
“Half the population pays $1 billion in income tax,” LePage said.
The governor said he wants to look at how income tax can be lowered. He also said the tourism industry should be better utilized and that tourists should pay a higher sales tax.
LePage also discussed a desire to attract younger people to Maine so more jobs can be filled and the average age in the state, 44 years old, can be lowered. He said student debt needs to be addressed as well, and that companies should assist employees in paying off debt.
He also discussed welfare reform, saying all able-bodied people should have to work and electronic benefit transfer funds should be better tracked.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks at a town hall meeting at the Freeport Community Library on Tuesday evening, Feb. 16. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)
Gov. Paul LePage listens to a question at a town hall meeting at the Freeport Community Library on Tuesday evening, Feb. 16. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)
James Roux, 29, defends asylum seekers after Gov. Paul LePage said “illegals … (are the) biggest problem in our state,” during a a town hall meeting at the Freeport Community Library on Tuesday evening, Feb. 16. Roux and several others left the standing-room-only meeting after LePage’s remarks about refugees. (Melanie Sochan / For The Forecaster)