YORK — Gov. Paul LePage hit on several familiar themes Tuesday night as he spoke to a largely friendly crowd of about 200 people in the banquet hall of a beachfront hotel.

Speaking at the Union Bluff Hotel in York during his second town hall meeting of 2017, LePage said his administration has offered legislation to limit the impacts of ballot questions passed by voters last November that increased the minimum wage and raised taxes on households earning more than $200,000 a year.

LePage said both measures, left unchecked, would damage the state’s economy. He said multiple efforts are underway at the State House to restore the so-called “tip credit,” which allows employers to pay those who earn tips a lower minimum wage when their tips exceed the minimum hourly wage, now $9 an hour in Maine. One local restaurant owner told LePage the wage increase would cost him up to $60,000 more a year when it’s fully implemented in 2020, if the tipped employees were not exempted from the minimum wage.

LePage said there are various bills, including one from his office, that seek to reverse that portion of the new minimum wage law, as well as eliminate provisions that require regular minimum wage hikes to be indexed to the cost of living.

“Rather than talking about minimum wage, we ought to be talking about career wages,” the Republican governor said.

He noted he wasn’t opposed to raising the minimum wage, but said the rate increase prescribed in the ballot initiative will drive consumer prices skyward. That will ultimately hurt Maine’s elderly, many of whom live on fixed incomes or Social Security, he added.

LePage also touched on the themes of education, the elderly, health care and immigration, and largely maintained an even temperament at the town hall meeting, encountering only one disruption.

He repeated his concerns that Maine’s public school system was “top-heavy” with administrators and that teachers were not paid evenly across the state. He noted his current two-year budget proposal would move the state to a base salary for all teachers as part of a statewide teachers’ contract.

LePage recapped his record on lowering the state’s income tax from a top marginal rate of 8.95 percent when he took office in 2011 to a top rate of 7.15 percent now. He said for the state to prosper it would have to get to a top rate of 4 percent, and reiterated his belief that states without income taxes are the most prosperous in the nation. Without citing a source, he said Maine’s prosperity was ranked 44 out of the 50 states.

“We try to reverse it,” he said, noting that his focus is on lowering taxes and the cost of energy, and reducing regulation.

He called Maine’s high income tax rate the state’s Achilles’ heel.

LePage was disrupted just once by a man who insisted that the governor acknowledge that other states which have raised the minimum wage have not seen their economies collapse. The man – who continued to shout in protest, demanding LePage’s resignation – was escorted from the room by local police.

LePage turned to Florida at least twice to illustrate his points on taxes, education and the minimum wage. He also mentioned New Jersey to highlight what happens when high-income earners choose to leave a state because taxes are too high. That prompted one audience member to interrupt and suggest, “We are talking about Maine.”

Challenged on his proposal to again reduce eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, LePage said under the new minimum wage more people would be eligible for an insurance subsidy under the Affordable Care Act. He also said he did not believe that Congress would repeal the act completely, as President Trump and some Republican leaders have vowed, and that the health insurance exchanges would continue.

LePage also said he believed the U.S. would ultimately end up with a single-payer health care system like Canada’s.

“That’s where I think we are heading,” he said to a round of applause. “The problem with a one-payer system is it is the most expensive system you can get because it is going to be a tax.”

LePage said he lived in Canada for 10 years and he came across the border to get services. “Free is very expensive to somebody,” LePage said.

He also indicated Canadian doctors don’t want to work for the government or for government pay, and when Canada went to a single-payer system, many physicians left for the U.S.

“Granted, if it happened now they wouldn’t go back to Canada because Canada is under a system that has been there since the 1970s,” LePage said.

York resident Michael Lee asked about the “harsh rhetoric” coming out of Trump’s office regarding immigration as well as the “harsh rhetoric that has come out of your office.”

“Do you foresee a time when perhaps there could be a more welcoming tone coming from the governor’s office?” Lee asked. The question drew cheers and applause from the crowd.

Although LePage bristled slightly, his response was measured as he explained his biggest issue was with asylum-seeking immigrants whom the state and local governments have to support. He said 70 percent of those who apply for asylum are denied and complained that the processing of asylum applications by the federal government was being handled too slowly.

“We are a society of laws,” LePage said. “You have never heard me criticize a refugee, you have never heard me criticize an immigrant. What you have heard me criticize is asylum seekers.”

He said the federal government needs to speed up the process and states must have a say in the process if they are going to pick up the costs of paying for asylum-seeking immigrants, who are barred from working under federal law.

“Refugees are doing exactly what they are supposed to. They come here, they try to find a job, they go to work and they try to raise their families,” LePage said.

Earlier Tuesday, during his regular weekly radio appearance on the “George Hale and Ric Tyler Show” on Bangor-based WVOM-FM, the governor said Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald told him Maine’s second largest city was expecting an influx of an additional 60 asylum seekers by the end of the week and that Macdonald has reached out to the state for help.

“His budget is blown all to pieces, he has no money, he is looking for the state to help him with some funds, and we don’t have the funds,” LePage said. He then blamed the Legislature for creating “artificial wait lists” for other health and social services programs “so they could fund asylum seekers in southern Maine, which I find really bad.”

“Mainers live their whole life here, they pay their fair share and when they get to the end of life or they are elderly and they need services, we throw them to the curb,” the governor added.

filed under: