CALAIS – Gov. Paul LePage and members of his Cabinet hit on familiar themes Friday night during the governor’s Capitol for a Day event in Washington County.

LePage said his focus for the upcoming legislative session is on energy, education and the economy.

“Jobs, jobs and jobs,” he told the crowd of about 100 people at Washington County Community College.

LePage said his three priorities are all linked. He said he had visited the Woodland Pulp Mill, formerly the Domtar mill, in Baileyville earlier in the day and discussed its conversion to natural gas. The cost of natural gas is about a third of the cost of oil, LePage said.

The mill spent about $15 million building a 4.5-mile natural gas pipeline, said state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, including a $5 million loan from the Finance Authority of Maine.

“By converting their energy source from oil to natural gas, they will save $13 million in one year. So in 15 months, they will pay that off,” Poliquin said.

The work being done ensures that the mill — and associated jobs — will be around for a “very long time,” LePage said.

One person asked LePage about the possibility of accessing the natural gas that’s available to neighboring Canadians but not Mainers.

“We are going to be meeting with natural gas companies in the very near future, Canadian ones as well,” LePage said, “and we are going to be discussing with the leadership about what can we do as a state to help in the infrastructure set of the major pipes and then see if we can’t have utilities take on the chore of connecting to the homes as we do with water and sewer now.”

The governor promised “to get natural gas to the majority of homes in the state in the next three years.”

LePage has held Capitol for a Day event in counties around the state since he took office in January, meeting with business people and giving residents a chance to ask the governor and his commissioners questions.

Speaking about education Friday night, LePage and Stephen Bowen, his education commissioner, said more emphasis on vocational schools is necessary.

Bowen also said he expects the first charter schools in Maine to be open for the next school year. LePage reaffirmed his support of school choice as well.

“I believe an education should be determined by the parents of a child and not the state,” he said.

When asked about the efficiency, or lack thereof, of the Department of Environmental Protection, LePage and acting Commissioner Patricia Aho touted the efforts that have been made this year. Aho said the DEP is now more customer-focused and, in addition to more rapidly processing current permitting applications, it has moved to clear a significant backlog.

“The backlog on air permits has been reduced by a third in the last six months and our goal is to make it at least 50 percent by the end of the year,” Aho said.

Walt Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, told the audience about the importance of marketing world-class products such as blueberries, lobsters and potatoes, and emphasized the importance of buying local to support farmers.

“It’s never easy in Washington County,” he said. “But it’s not easy in (the rest of) Maine either.”

Whitcomb said the governor is committed to beefing up staffing for inspectors to facilitate local food production in the state’s rural areas.

Other commissioners joining the governor were Bill Beardsley of the Department of Conservation and Dave Bernhardt of the Department of Transportation.

Beardsley spoke of the importance of his work on the commission that is examining the future of the state’s Land Use Regulation Commission. Bernhardt said he is doing more to maintain the state’s roads with fewer state dollars.

One woman rose not to ask a question but to thank the governor for his work.

“I came tonight to personally thank the governor for the wonderful job you are doing,” she said. “My husband and I have worked our whole lives and we’ve never asked government for anything but to take less from us.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Rebekah Metzler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

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