In his first town meeting since his controversial remarks in Bridgton two weeks ago, a more restrained Gov. Paul LePage talked about his ideas for reducing income tax, cutting energy costs, reforming the welfare program and addressing the burden of student-loan debt, Tuesday at Windham High School.

In the Bridgton town hall session, he said drug dealers from out of state “impregnate white girls” when they come to Maine. The comments sparked outrage and prompted national media coverage. The governor apologized the following day.

Seated at a table on the stage of the school’s auditorium, LePage said his “No. 1 goal is to lower your income tax (and) move toward a consumption tax.” He also discussed cutting entitlements for welfare and consolidating student loans to decrease student debt.

Questions from the 100-plus members of the audience ranged from welfare reform and gun control to addressing drug addiction in Maine, including the over-prescription of opiate drugs.

Jeff Eaton of Windham asked about the state’s plans to build facilities to treat people with drug addictions. LePage said he plans to approach the Legislature about using a unspecified prison, which could include the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, for an outpatient treatment facility for people struggling with addictions. The governor has recently proposed a $171 million overhaul of the Windham prison.

He said the facility would “put a bracelet on their wrist or their ankle, and say go to work, stay clean. You don’t stay clean, you’re going to that building over there with the fence around it. And it’s the only thing we can do, because while I do believe treatment is very, very important, if you don’t have a hammer or something to force it, it falls apart.”

LePage also suggested expanding facilities to move forensic patients – people who are mentally ill and pose a significant risk to themselves or others – from the Riverview Psychiatric Facility in Augusta to county jails.

“I’m looking at forensic patients at Riverview, I’m looking at our county jails. So I’m looking at not only drug addiction, but mental illness,” he said.

Peter Steele, the governor’s director of communications, said both plans are still in preliminary phases and no details have been solidified. It is not yet known which facilities would be involved in the program.

Samantha Edwards, director of media relations at the Department of Health and Human Services, said Riverview lost its certification as a hospital from the federal government due to a number of safety concerns, one of them being the treatment of forensic patients alongside civil patients. She said “all of the safety concerns except that have been addressed.”

When asked about the plan to move forensic patients out of Riverview, she said, “It’s not an immediate thing, it’s part of a plan they’re coming out with.”

Bill Diamond, a Democrat state senator from Windham, said he’s concerned about bringing Riverview patients into local detention centers.

“It’s a little disconcerting given the magnitude of this change that the communities haven’t really been told anything about it. I think it’s important for the community to know and be involved in initial discussions and not wait until after it’s pretty much decided,” he said.

Diamond credited LePage for working to organize town meetings to discuss these possibilities with neighbors of the communities.

“I think people want a chance to hear his position, his side of things. The meeting served that purpose,” he said.

Dennis Dyer, another Windham resident, asked LePage if he would endorse whichever Republican presidential candidate wins the Maine primary. LePage endorses New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, saying the candidate would be “better than anything the other side has,” after jokingly saying he would endorse the Vermont senator, and self-described socialist, Bernie Sanders.

During one of the more contentious exchanges of the evening, Jane Pringle, a retired medical director of Maine Medical Center and a former state sepresentative from Windham, asked the governor why he opposed expanding Medicaid, a proposal by the Obama administration that expands medical coverage to those who fall at 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Maine and several other states have not enacted the program.

LePage said he wouldn’t expand the aid program because the “(Affordable Care Act) and Medicaid is down the tubes and…states that expanded are growing broke.”

Pringle countered that because hospitals are reimbursed by Medicaid when they provide free care, “we’re already spending money for those who are uninsured.”

When LePage responded that she was incorrect, Pringle said they would have to “agree to disagree.”

Some attendees came to the event just to hear what the governor had to say about state affairs. Millie Howe of Bridgton said she and her husband, Robert Howe, missed the town hall in Bridgton two weeks ago. She said they were “thrilled to death” to attend the Windham event.

“More people should come to stuff like this,” she said.

Kelly-Anne Rush, a social studies teacher at Windham High School, offered extra credit to students in her finance and citizenship course. She said 10 of her students attended the meeting.

Rush said the class had been discussing how to choose political leaders.

“Whether you’re conservative or liberal,” she said, “you should gather information from a number of sources and make judgments based on your morals and values.”

She was excited that 10 of her students came out for the meeting.

“I think it gave them a better understanding of the issues facing Maine,” she said.

Governor Paul LePage at a town hall meeting at Windham High School on Tuesday evening. LePage spoke on the issues of income tax, welfare reform and drug addiction. 

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