Gov. Paul LePage’s continued public push to cut the state’s income tax, overhaul the welfare system and tackle the state’s drug epidemic followed a familiar script during a forum Tuesday evening at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

Then, members of the audience started asking questions.

The governor engaged in several spirited exchanges about his refusal to authorize land conservation bonds and his focus on disrupting illegal drug trafficking. While audience members didn’t challenge his plan to add agents to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, several took issue with his comments about a drug that revives people who have overdosed. LePage said the drug, Narcan, is hurting the state’s approach to the drug crisis.

“Narcan doesn’t save lives, it extends lives,” he said.

A woman asked him, “So what do you do, let them die?”

The exchange was one of several with audience members in a city that overwhelming voted against the governor in the 2010 and 2014 elections and occasionally has been a target of his tough rhetoric and policies. The audience of about 300 listened for roughly 45 minutes as LePage hit several familiar topics.

LePage calmly delivered impassioned remarks for most of the forum and congratulated the city’s new mayor, Ethan Strimling. The governor grew more feisty when audience members challenged him.

The governor also declined to condemn Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s plan to block Muslims from entering the country. LePage, who has joined other governors in opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States, said it is a “national issue.” However, he said he’d welcome Muslim immigrants if he could be assured by the Department of Homeland Security that they have been thoroughly vetted.

Gov. LePage calmly delivered impassioned remarks for most of the forum in Portland Tuesday, but grew more feisty when audience members challenged him on topics such as his refusal to authorize land conservation bonds.

Gov. LePage calmly delivered impassioned remarks for most of the forum in Portland Tuesday, but grew more feisty when audience members challenged him on topics such as his refusal to authorize land conservation bonds. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

POLICY AGENDA TOUR

The event was part of the governor’s statewide tour to champion his policy agenda, which partially overlaps with a Maine Republican Party-led referendum to overhaul the state’s welfare system and dramatically cut the state income tax. The governor has held more than a dozen town hall meetings since February. Recent forums have coincided with the party’s effort to gather more than 62,000 signatures it needs before the end of January to put the question on the 2016 ballot. On Tuesday, a signature gatherer for the party was stationed outside USM’s Hannaford Hall.

The governor acknowledged that his message might not be well received by the Portland crowd. “I’m here to tell you what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it,” he said.

He said he and Strimling don’t agree on much, but he believes they can work together.

The crowd applauded the governor’s remarks about improving relations with Portland and listened quietly as he rattled off figures and statistics to promote the income tax cut.

But the calm tone began to deteriorate when LePage was asked about the state’s drug crisis and his refusal to release Land for Maine’s Future bonds.

Andrew Kiezulas of Portland asked whether the governor believes in beefing up treatment funding. Kiezulas, who has described himself as a recovering addict and was a member of former Mayor Michael Brennan’s drug task force, asked LePage how he is addressing the overprescribing of opiates, which is believed to be driving the national spike in heroin use.

LePage cited the statistic that opioids dispensed in the MaineCare system have fallen by 45 percent, from 22.1 million in 2012 to 12.2 million in 2014, since MaineCare instituted reforms making it more difficult to obtain opioid prescriptions. But Kiezulas countered that opioid prescriptions to patients with private insurance have increased by 5 percent, from 41.5 million in 2012 to 43.8 million in 2014.

The number of heroin users seeking treatment has tripled, from 1,115 in 2010 to 3,463 in 2014, according to state data.

LePage didn’t dispute the statistic, but grew irritated when pressed about his support for treatment funding. He said the state has spent $76 million on treatment.

“We spend what we get,” said LePage, who blamed the Legislature for not appropriating more. “Don’t look at me and say I’m not spending enough on treatment. Look at the Legislature and say, ‘We need more money for treatment.’ ”

Kiezulas responded, “Does treatment work, Mr. Governor?”

“Not with heroin,” said LePage, referring to a Department of Health and Human Services statistic that only 36 percent of people who enter state-funded treatment programs complete them.

“You can go up to $150 million (in treatment) and you’re not going to solve the problem. …” he added. “I think that’s a disproportionate share of money spent on trying to treat and the success rate is very low.”

‘YOU HAVE TO WANT TREATMENT’

When LePage’s comment about Narcan was challenged, he said he has seen data that 90 percent of heroin users eventually die as a result of their addiction.

“Treatment is fine,” he said. “Some people are willing to be treated and some aren’t. We cannot force people to be treated. … You have to want it.”

Some in the audience applauded the governor’s remark.

After the forum, Kiezulas said he supports the governor’s plan to crack down on the drug trade, but wishes he would fight that hard for treatment.

LePage has repeatedly called for funding 10 more agents to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency to help law enforcement disrupt the drug trade, at one point vowing to call up the Maine National Guard if the Legislature doesn’t act quickly.

Republican Senate President Michael Thibodeau told reporters Monday that he and legislative leaders are working on such a proposal. On Tuesday, Thibodeau sent a letter to the governor notifying him that it could be ready for his consideration by Jan. 14.

“The details of the bill are still being finalized,” Thibodeau wrote. “However, while I don’t want to speak for other leaders, I believe you will find we are committed to funding the additional MDEA agents. The final package will include comparable funding for additional treatment, prevention, and drug education programs.”

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said after the forum that lawmakers are focusing on three-pronged approach to the drug problem, and that LePage’s push for 10 agents “will happen.”

An audience member holds up a sign as Gov. LePage leaves the room after his town hall tour event at USM. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

An audience member holds up a sign as Gov. LePage leaves the room after his town hall tour event at USM. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

CHALLENGED ON RELEASING BONDS

The governor also was challenged on his refusal to release bonds for Land for Maine’s Future. LePage blamed the Legislature for the controversy, but not before describing the program as one that helps only “rich people.”

Several members of the audience noted that voters had approved the bonds. LePage dismissed their criticism, saying critics don’t understand the issue.

LePage kicked off his statewide tour in February to tout his tax overhaul plan and budget proposal. The Legislature ultimately rejected his tax plan, which would have partially paid for an income tax cut with a higher sales tax and eliminating exemptions for goods and services.

LePage, vowing to take his message to Maine voters, renewed his tour in September. Since then, he has used the meetings to push for the Republican referendum while criticizing legislators, regardless of party, for not supporting his policies.

That criticism continued Tuesday, with LePage saying many lawmakers simply vote the way their leadership tells them.

“They’re told how to work and how to vote. Bad people,” he said.

LePage was expected to face a skeptical, if not hostile, crowd in Portland, but there were few disruptions. The governor extended the forum by 20 minutes to take additional questions. He ended it when some people began yelling questions rather than waiting to be handed the microphone.

Democratic members of the city’s legislative delegation attended, as did Strimling, who was sworn in Monday. Strimling said Monday that the governor deserves credit for holding the meeting in Portland, “the belly of the beast,” and that he hopes to reset relations the city’s sometimes adversarial relations with the LePage administration.

This story was updated at 8:45 a.m. Dec. 9, to correct the amount the state has spent on treatment programs.