Gov. Paul LePage touted his accomplishments over the past few years in improving Maine’s economy and blamed partisan gridlock for his failures, including several bills he introduced that were shot down by Democrats, at a monthly business seminar in Portland on Thursday.
LePage was the guest speaker at this month’s Eggs & Issues breakfast, organized by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
He gave what amounted to a campaign speech before a crowd of nearly 500 attendees, taking credit for the state’s recent economic recovery, job growth and the repayment of MaineCare debt to hospitals.
LePage also criticized Democratic legislators for rejecting a number of his bills, including measures to create right-to-work “enterprise zones,” hire more lawyers to prosecute drug crimes, reform the state’s electronic benefit transfer card program, and require politicians to tell the truth when campaigning.
He said the primary barrier to economic growth in Maine is a shortage of skilled, younger workers, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM.
LePage said K-12 schools need to put more effort into STEM education, and he also proposed offering student loan assistance to students who come from out of state to attend colleges and universities in Maine.
“We’ve got 8,000 jobs right now in the job bank that we can’t fill,” he said.
LePage noted that while he is often accused of cutting funds for education, spending on schools has increased since former Gov. John Baldacci’s administration from $864 million to $973 million.
Another challenge for Maine is attracting more large employers to the state, LePage said. He blamed the state’s Democratic leadership for a failed measure that would have created special zones in which large employers would receive tax breaks and employees could opt out of union participation.
LePage said he plans to make a return trip to China within the next month in an effort to spur investment in Maine by Chinese interests.
Despite being communist, he said, “they’re very nice people and they’re looking to invest.”
LePage, who vetoed a proposed increase in the state’s minimum wage in 2013, said he is not opposed to a higher minimum wage but favors efforts to create more “career jobs” that pay better and bring greater economic prosperity to the state.
On other issues, LePage recounted his failed efforts to prohibit the use of welfare benefit debit, or EBT, cards at smoke shops and liquor stores, and for certain types of purchase. Still, he did tout one success: a new requirement that photos of EBT cardholders be added to the cards.
LePage joked to the crowd that his proposed EBT card restrictions could have been far harsher.
“I left out guns and ammunition,” he said. “I left out piercings and tattoos, because I didn’t want it to be controversial.”
He also talked about his failed effort to hire more prosecutors to go after drug suspects, which was prompted in part by a recent rise in methamphetamine-lab busts in Maine.
“We have an epidemic,” he said.
LePage mentioned his political opponents in the upcoming governor’s race only by their first names and encouraged audience members to scrutinize all of the state’s politicians and hold them accountable for their words and actions.
“This is what I ask you for: Just hold their feet to the fire,” he said.
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 207-791-6390 or: