LePage on stage: Governor talks issues, fields questions at Bath forum

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BATH — In the latest in his series of Town Hall-style forums, this time packing the seats at Morse High School March 10, Gov. Paul LePage tackled a slew of issues facing Maine, and questions from local residents.

Responses from the audience, which the often-controversial governor faced from the Montgomery Theater stage, ran the gamut from applause to occasional catcalls.

Issues LePage addressed for a quarter of the forum included reducing the income tax and energy costs, the state’s significant student debt burden, and welfare reform. He spent the rest of the approximately 65-minute gathering fielding pre-written questions from the audience.

“Lowering the income tax will make Maine more competitive with the other states,” LePage said, noting that while the state average around the country is 5.5 percent, Maine’s is 7.15 percent, and was 8.5 percent when he took office in 2011.

The most prosperous states have the lowest taxes, while the poorest have the highest, he added.

“We rank 45th,” LePage said.

The governor delved into his youth when speaking to the welfare issue, noting that he escaped poverty because he was given the tools to improve himself – a hand up instead of a handout.

“If you want something, you’ve got to go get it,” LePage said. “And if you don’t know how, you need assistance. … I am the first one to roll up my sleeves and help anybody that needs help.”

“What about black people? What about asylum seekers?,” one person yelled from the audience, with others in attendance getting stirred up and booing the man as he continued his questions.

Addressing the question of those seeking asylum, LePage said there are three types of people who come to the U.S. from foreign countries: primary refugees, secondary refugees, and asylum seekers.

Primary refugees, who go through the system where they complete a medical evaluation, are sent to a specific place, such as Maine, and the federal government funds about the first 18 months of that person’s stay, LePage said.

Secondary refugees start in one state and then opt to move elsewhere, but the money does not follow them, he noted, adding that “when they get to Maine, we pick it up.”

“What you’ve heard me complain about is asylum seekers,” who do not enter the country through political asylum, but through a visa, he said, adding that “they overstay their stay. … They don’t have any vetting done whatever, they have no medical assessment whatsoever. You get what you get. And that has caused us a whole lot of problems.”

On the subject of education costs, LePage said Maine has 127 school superintendents overseeing 177,000 students, and is ranked No. 38 in the country. Florida, on the other hand, has 3 million students but only 64 superintendents, and is ranked No. 7, he noted.

“If we did not have local control, we would have 25 school districts, and we would get so much done so much cheaper,” LePage said. “It’s not the blame game, it’s the facts.”

He asked the audience why only one-third of Maine students leaving third grade are proficient at grade-level reading and math.

“Pre-school programs, my friend,” one person responded.

“I’ve been there, done that,” LePage said. “… Russia’s been doing it for 50 years; they say it doesn’t work.”

After more back-and-forth exchanges with audience members, he said, “If we can’t have the civility, then maybe we leave.”

“Folks, do you want me to continue?,” asked LePage, who was answered by  applause.

Someone identifying as Joe from Bath said he loved LePage and so does God, then asked for cheers.

“I’m very nervous about drugs,” he told LePage. “… I know you are too, Mr. Governor, because you feel the same way that I do. And I’m just wondering if you ever think that it would be possible to have some kind of a vigilante justice system, if you would authorize someone like myself to be targeting D Money and Shifty, and keeping them out of our state.”

This reference to a remark LePage made recently about people coming to Maine to traffic heroin drew a few laughs.

LePage said he has hopes the “opiate pandemic” would be curbed by 2022. He noted the large sums of money going into enforcement and treatments, and  – telling recent stories of a 2-year-old that got into his mother’s heroin, and a student that overdosed at school – the importance of keeping youths away from drugs in the first place.

He described an effort to dedicate $150 million to a new facility to deal with drug addiction and mental health.

One audience member expressed increasing concern about “the caustic atmosphere from Washington, D.C. to Augusta,” and asked for advice to the next generation of potential leaders for improving civility of public discourse, and  working together cooperatively from both sides of an issue.

“I wish I had that answer,” the former Waterville mayor responded. “But I will tell you, as an elected official I have never been treated as badly as I have, from August of 2010 to this day, by the press in the state of Maine.”

He said his door is “absolutely wide open for anyone to come down and talk, but what happens is, they don’t want to talk. … It takes two groups that want to talk.”

Asked about his support for presidential candidate Donald Trump, LePage praised the billionaire’s financial successes.

“He may be brash, but he knows how to make money, and what this country needs right now is someone that can understand that $19 trillion is a massive debt,” the governor said, expressing hope that Trump would whittle down that number.

“I would rather support Donald Trump than a woman that’s got one foot in jail” while trying to stretch to the White House, LePage said, referring to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

This reporter asked a question of LePage, too: If he could go back and do one thing differently in his time as governor, what would it be?

“I wouldn’t run,” he quickly responded, drawing laughter and applause.

“I wouldn’t run for the exact reason that I heard some people speak tonight,” LePage continued. “… I took a 70 percent cut in pay in 2010 to run for governor of the state of Maine, all the way down to $70,000, which is the lowest-paid governor in the United States and the territories.”

But he was willing to run, he said, in part because he knew he could use his economic and financial background to effect positive change in Maine.

LePage acknowledged that he “may not be the smoothest-talking guy.”

“We may be different, we may all disagree, and I don’t expect anyone to agree with me 100 percent of the time,” he said. “Hell, I get in front of the mirror in the morning, and I don’t even agree with myself.”

“It’s not about being somebody that will agree all the time,” LePage added. “But meet me halfway, maybe? Or talk about it?”

The governor thanked the audience for listening as he wrapped up the forum.

“I hope you enjoyed it. If you didn’t,” he added with a grin, “well, I guess you wasted a couple of hours.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Gov. Paul LePage fielded questions and addressed state issues at a Town Hall-style forum in Bath March 10.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.