DAMARISCOTTA — Gov. Paul LePage touched on familiar themes, including lowering energy costs and tax reform, during a town hall meeting attended by a respectful crowd of about 90 people Wednesday night.

He also urged state residents to vote against a statewide ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, saying it would hurt small business owners, increase the cost of goods and make it more difficult for young people to find work.

“This whole minimum wage is a very scary thing,” LePage said, noting he would support increasing the wage to $10 an hour. “You have to understand what it will do to the economy.”

Attendees at the town hall event at the Great Salt Bay Community School in Damariscotta were prohibited from bringing in signs. Although three people were escorted out of the event, the meeting was otherwise calm with many who attended appearing to agree with the governor.

The crowd turned on one protester, Freeport resident James Roux, who regularly attends LePage’s town halls. Roux interrupted the event, asking in a loud voice why no challenging questions were being asked.

A few audience members could be heard saying “go back to where you came from” and “get him out of here,” before Roux was removed by police.

LePage has been holding town hall meetings throughout Maine to discuss his priorities for the state. The events typically feature a speech by the governor, followed by a question-and-answer period moderated by his staff.

MORE MILL CLOSURES PREDICTED

Frustrated by a lack of progress in getting his agenda through the Legislature, LePage has taken his message directly to voters. He often stresses the need to reduce energy costs, cut taxes, reform welfare programs and crack down on drug dealers. He also encourages voters to elect legislators who share his priorities.

The meetings have drawn both supportive and combative audiences.

During Wednesday’s town hall, LePage blamed high energy costs and high taxes for mill closures. He predicted “a couple more will be leaving this year” without offering specifics. Some of the same forces are at work for Barber Foods, he said. The company said in a recent federal financial filing that high energy costs could jeopardize its frozen food plant in Portland, the governor said.

LePage also took on state lawmakers, a frequent target. He blamed them for not addressing shortcomings in the Maine Tree Growth Tax Program, which provides tax breaks to property owners who responsibly harvest their timber. He said people are benefiting from the program without harvesting.

He criticized lawmakers who vote to spend budget surpluses rather than putting the money in the state’s rainy day fund.

“This spend, spend, spend thing is like an addiction. I look at spending like heroin. Once you’re on, you can’t get off,” he said.

Concerning the state’s heroin epidemic, LePage said he supports the use of a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose, but there should be limits.

“Narcan’s a good drug. If you took it once and learned from it fine, but after 12 times I think we ought to charge you,” said LePage, who vetoed a bill to make the drug more accessible. He also has said the drug merely prolongs an addict’s life rather than saving it. “We have people who have had 12, 14, 16 shots of Narcan. There comes a point in time where who is responsible for who?”

LAND CONSERVATION PROGRAM CRITICIZED

In response to a question about tax-exempt properties, LePage criticized the Land for Maine’s Future program, which conserves land using state dollars. He said the program deprives communities of property taxes, while increasing the amount of money the state borrows.

The governor then pivoted to education, saying there’s not enough money spent on what goes on in the classroom. He said county government should be responsible for school administration. He also suggested a single employment contract for all teachers in Maine would bring parity to schools, “so not only all of the rich towns and cities would have all the best teachers.”

Wednesday’s town hall came amid a difficult week for the governor, who is no stranger to controversy.

At the Maine Republican State Convention in Bangor on Saturday, the governor made fun of the accents of foreign workers, describing people from India as being “the worst ones.” The remark prompted a backlash from immigrant advocates.

On Monday, LePage held a closed-door meeting of a specially appointed education commission, barring some lawmakers and the media from attending. The state Attorney General’s Office said the meeting violated the state’s Freedom of Access Act. House Speaker Mark Eves on Tuesday called for sanctions against LePage, who later withdrew from the commission.

Then on Tuesday, LePage walked out of a dedication ceremony at the University of Maine at Farmington after two students held up protest signs, including one saying “LePage: Maine’s Shame.” LePage only spoke for about 45 seconds before leaving, calling the students “idiots” as he walked by.

LePage issued a written statement Wednesday apologizing to current and former UMF staff for “the sequence of events” that led to his departure. He blamed “smug and self-serving protesters” and the media for ruining the public event.

LePage said that he would no longer attend some of the public events to which he is invited, because his presence overshadows the purpose of these events.

 


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