SACO — Gov. Paul LePage’s town hall-style forum came to a chaotic end Thursday night when a former Democratic state lawmaker was hauled away by state police after she angrily confronted the governor, shouting that his budget proposals were harming low-income Mainers.
Joanne Twomey, a former Biddeford mayor and legislator known for her outspoken manner, approached the stage at Thornton Academy and tussled with security before flipping a jar of Vaseline onto the stage near LePage’s feet. An officer immediately grabbed the jar off the stage as she was being escorted away.
LePage sparked a media frenzy in June 2013 when he made a crude sexual remark involving Vaseline while criticizing a Democratic state senator.
Members of the crowd both cheered and jeered Twomey, as well as the police response. LePage left the stage immediately afterward.
Peter Steele, a spokesman for the governor, said later that it was unfortunate the forum ended the way it did.
“Law enforcement takes that very seriously,” Steele said. “You’re not allowed to rush a sitting governor. She had something in her bag and it looked like she was reaching for it and they sprang into action. It was unfortunate, but there’s zero tolerance.”
Twomey had not been charged with any crimes as of Thursday night, and Steele said he was not sure if police would pursue the issue.
Afterward, Twomey defended her actions while talking to the media and other forum attendees, several of whom accused her of “ruining” the event.
“What he is about to do to this state, you have to be out of order,” Twomey said. “You cannot live with those policies and not speak up.”
TENSIONS OVER BUDGET AND TAX PLANS
The incident came near the end of a forum during which LePage laid out his tax cut and budget proposals before answering questions from audience members. Much of the forum was routine and included several respectful exchanges between LePage and audience members who were critical of his two-year budget plan. Other audience members thanked the governor for his proposals and cheered his unapologetic responses to critics.
But the atmosphere became more tense when an audience member asked LePage about his plans to allow municipalities to tax nonprofit organizations with more than $500,000 in property value as part of his proposal to eliminate revenue sharing to communities. When LePage suggested the policy would primarily affect private colleges and hospitals, members of the audience responded with loud “No’s.”
“I’m concerned about the nonprofit day camps, overnight camps, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts,” said Jean Leach, president of Camp Laughing Loon in East Waterboro.
When another woman suggested that nonprofits would have to reduce programs, LePage responded that Mainers will have more money to support nonprofits if the Legislature approved his proposal to reduce income tax rates.
“Didn’t I not say that I was going to put $1.3 billion back in your pockets? Why don’t you give them a little bit?” LePage said.
Twomey, who was seated in the front row of the audience, stood up and began a heated back-and-forth with LePage after the governor said that, under his long-term plan, Maine would no longer have an income tax in 2020.
She apparently came to the forum intending to confront the governor about his budget plan. On her Facebook page Wednesday night, she wrote: “I have researched all that I want for ammunition tomorrow night, have my notes and will speak up, and they will not shut me up. I will be respectful, but I will be heard and if they try to shut me up I just may have to get handcuffed, it won’t be the first time, and it probably won’t be the last.”
REMINDER OF GOVERNOR’S PAST REMARK
After the meeting, Twomey said she planned to hand the jar of Vaseline to the governor, but tossed it when security guards pulled her from the stage. In a high-profile incident while lawmakers were finalizing the state’s last two-year budget in 2013, LePage told a camera crew that a Democratic state senator “claims to be for the people, but he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
Twomey represented the city of Biddeford in the Maine House from 1998 to 2006. She also served two terms as Biddeford’s mayor and ran unsuccessfully for the position again in 2013.
LePage’s appearance in Saco was the latest in his town hall-style forums being held around the state to promote his budget and tax plan. The Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee is starting to delve deeper into the governor’s two-year, $6.5 billion budget but is not expected to finalize its work until June. With Democrats controlling the House and Republicans controlling the Senate, the end product is expected to look significantly different than LePage’s proposal.
He wants to cut the top income tax rate from 7.95 percent to 5.75 percent and raise the income threshold for applying the top tax rate to $50,000. He also has proposed eliminating the estate tax, as well as income taxes on military pensions.
To help offset those revenue losses, LePage proposed increasing the sales tax rate to 6.5 percent from 5.5 percent and applying sales and use taxes to hundreds more goods and services in an effort to capture more money from tourists.
“In the summer months, 26 (million) or 27 million people come to Maine in three months … and they are enjoying the beauty of the best time of our state, so we are going to charge them a little premium for being here,” LePage said Thursday night, sparking applause from many in the audience.
ABRUPT ENDING TO ‘CONSTRUCTIVE NIGHT’
But the governor’s proposals to increase and broaden the sales tax – similar to one defeated at the ballot box by Republicans in 2010 – and to eliminate revenue sharing to municipalities have encountered resistance from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as well as left-leaning organizations. LePage seems resigned to the fact that some of his most ambitious proposals will not survive the Legislature’s budget-writing process, even telling audience members Thursday night not to worry about the nonprofit tax because “the Legislature is going to take it out.”
But he also has shown increasing willingness to play political hardball with lawmakers from either party on the budget.
On Thursday morning, LePage told attendees at a Brunswick business breakfast that he would veto bills in order to pressure lawmakers to go along with his budget plans, including his proposal to divert $5 million from increased timber harvesting to help people convert to more efficient home heating systems.
“It’s about leverage,” LePage said, explaining that if he doesn’t “get $5 million to help people get low-cost heating systems, they don’t get what they want.”
Many Saco- and Biddeford-area legislators were in the crowd during Thursday’s forum and expressed disappointment at the way it ended.
“It really interfered with a constructive night,” said Rep. Barry Hobbins, a Saco Democrat who has known Twomey for years.