Gov. Paul LePage makes a point during a town hall meeting at Biddeford High School on Tuesday that drew about 70 people.

Gov. Paul LePage makes a point during a town hall meeting at Biddeford High School on Tuesday that drew about 70 people.

BIDDEFORD — During a town hall meeting Tuesday at Biddeford High School, Gov. Paul LePage praised welfare reforms recently enacted by the Legislature, warned that 1,200 to 1,500 high-paying job losses were coming, addressed Maine’s opioid crisis, railed against high energy costs, and took a swipe at Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, all in the span of about an hour and a half.

LePage spoke with passion about the issues near and dear to him, took questions from the audience and appeared relaxed for the most part – except during exchanges with a few vocal critics.

In response to a question from the audience, which numbered 70 to 80 people, LePage bristled at the notion that service center communities such as Biddeford should get more help from the state.

“That’s a cop-out by the mayor of Biddeford,” LePage said.

Casavant, a Democrat, is also a former member of the state House of Representatives.

LePage suggested social services could be administered at a county level, and said that prior to his election as mayor of Waterville, the mil rate there was $29. He reduced it to $21, paid the city’s bills and put $10 million in the bank, he said.

“A lot can be done, but just saying services centers should get a break, I don’t buy into it,” LePage said.

Echoing comments that fueled speculation earlier this month, the governor said Maine is about to lose 1,200 to 1,500 jobs in the paper industry and elsewhere that pay $60,000 to $80,000 annually per employee.

As with the earlier statement, he did not elaborate as to which businesses would be making the cuts, or where they are located. He did, however, cite Sappi North America in Westbrook as an example of paper mills that are in danger, and noted the loss of paper-making jobs in Maine in general. To create economic development, he said, Maine has to attract capital.

LePage devoted much of the meeting addressing energy-related issues. He said high energy costs are costing Maine jobs, and pointed to a Taiwanese company that he’d been talking to about buying a paper mill in Old Town. Instead, the company plans to go to Wisconsin, which LePage said is ranked 31st in the cost of doing business, compared to Maine’s 19th rating for operating costs.

He also said he invited Airbus to come to Maine, citing the former Brunswick Naval Air Station as a prime location, but that it too, cited high energy costs and declined.

A solar energy bill recently approved by the Legislature will increase energy costs from 14 cents to 22 cents per kilowatt hour, LePage said, adding that he’s invited Democrats to meet with him on Friday to discuss the measure. But in all likelihood, he said, he would veto the current bill, and he predicted that his veto would be sustained.

To lower energy costs, he said, Maine could import power from Hydro Quebec at 6 cents a kilowatt and sell it for an additional penny to other states. LePage noted that Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire and Point Lepreau in New Brunswick, Canada, both offer cheap electricity, but Maine doesn’t buy it, even though Maine is poised between the two plants and would be in the path “if anything ever happened.”

Joanne Twomey, a former Biddeford mayor and state legislator who is challenging District 32 Sen. Susan Deschambault in the June primary – and who threw a jar of Vaseline at the stage during LePage’s town hall event in Saco in 2015 – asked why the Legislature hasn’t voted for hydroelectric power.

LePage replied that it’s because of a 100-megawatt limit that provides exceptions only for wind and solar power.

Other issues addressed by the governor included:

• Welfare reform: LePage said the Legislature “heard Maine people” when it enacted a bill that prevents the use of welfare benefits for tobacco, alcohol and lottery ticket sales.

He said he’s looking at additional reforms next year, but the state has to work with the federal government first “to make sure they’re on board.” He did not elaborate.

• Minimum wage: LePage said he supports a minimum wage increase, which he said should instead be called a “starting wage,” but not to $12 an hour as laid out in an upcoming November referendum.

He said such an increase will mean layoffs at companies employing fewer than 10 people, and that people living on Social Security will “get hammered, they will get destroyed ” with price increases for milk, eggs, meat and more that would occur as a result.

He predicted that young people ages 16 to 25 would also be hurt, with the exception of those with a higher education, and that the referendum takes away the tip credit.

“You make minimum wage, and that’s it. This bill is horrible,” LePage said.

• Education: Maine has to “put mentors in the classroom, not teachers,” LePage said, adding that the mentors should be paid more.

In response to a question, he called for more discipline in schools. He said at times, teachers need to be reprimanded for their performance in the classroom, as do students.

And, he said, Maine needs to focus more on technical education, because people learn in many ways, such as with their eyes or their hands. Then he took a potshot at himself: “Some, like me, don’t know how to shut their mouths,” he quipped.

• Opioid epidemic: LePage said Maine has to “treat the addicted, get the traffickers off the streets and educate the young.”

• The presidential election: LePage, who has endorsed Republican Donald Trump, said he supports Trump because, as a businessman, Trump has “made billions of dollars.”

“I’ve seen no one in Washington make a decent financial decision in my lifetime,” LePage said.

Ted Cruz is “almost my blood brother, ideologically,” he said, but Cruz was born in Canada, and therefore is not a natural-born citizen of the United States.

One young man asked LePage’s advice about entering politics.

“Don’t,” replied LePage.

As to the critics present at the town hall meeting, LePage said they frequently attend his town halls, and called them “groupies” similar to the Deadheads who once followed the rock band Grateful Dead from city to city .

He ordered one critic removed from the venue. Another left of his own accord, shouting it was time for him to leave when LePage compared himself to Jerry Garcia, the late frontman of the Grateful Dead.

A third man, a Portland resident who told LePage he lived in the same building as drug dealers, asked the governor if had been advocating gun use when, in January, he advised folks to “load up.”

“Well, if you’re that stupid, sir…” replied LePage.

“You are stupid sir, when you make a statement like that,” the man said.

“I do not advocate anyone take a gun and go shoot your neighbor for any circumstances, “ LePage said. “Get on the hotline and give names and addresses.”

“I give him credit for coming out to these things,” said Sanford resident Paul Auger of LePage after the meeting. “I’d like to see him come to Sanford.”

Auger said he was interested in what LePage said about energy. “It made me want to look into it.”

Charles Sherman of Biddeford said he wants to see LePage in a higher office.

“I voted for him twice, and I want to see him in the (U.S.) Senate,” said Sherman. “I’ve had it with Angus (King) and Susan (Collins).”

Why LePage?

“To stir things up in Washington,” Sherman said.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or [email protected]

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