YARMOUTH — Gov. Paul LePage faced tough questions on his history of controversial comments and on education in front of a divided crowd of several hundred people at a town hall meeting Wednesday night.

Returning to his meeting circuit after roughly two weeks in Florida and Washington, D.C., LePage predicted that the voter-approved 3 percent tax surcharge on wealthier Mainers “is going to kill us,” and that restaurants will struggle to fill server positions this summer because of the elimination of the tip credit.

LePage also hit his usual talking points about Maine’s need to lower taxes and energy costs to remain competitive during the hour-long meeting at AMVETS Post 2 in Yarmouth.

But many of the speakers in the crowd – which at times did as much shouting at each other as at the governor – challenged him on his priorities and his brash, politically incorrect style.

The atmosphere heated up when several speakers suggested LePage isn’t doing enough publicly to condemn recent hate crimes and bomb threats against Jewish institutions.

“I don’t know how many middle schools and high schools I have been to, talking against bullying,” LePage said. “I don’t know how many times I have spoken against domestic violence. Racism is a horrible crime. I’m against racism.”

But others pressed the governor on past comments viewed as racially charged. One speaker asked LePage why he suggested that Georgia Rep. John Lewis – a civil rights icon – should thank northern whites for freeing the slaves.

“John Lewis made a derogatory remark to the president of the United States and I held him accountable,” LePage said, referring to Lewis’ criticisms of then President-elect Donald Trump and Lewis’ plan to boycott the inauguration. LePage’s criticism of Lewis drew national media attention.

LePage’s comment Wednesday merely fired up some in the crowd.

Garrett Stewart, a black resident of Yarmouth, told LePage that his comments about Lewis and about black drug dealers coming to Maine were hurtful to his children.

“Why do you say things like that on TV?” Stewart said. “I think it’s unfortunate that you say that. You are the governor of Maine. You should be above all of that.”

LePage responded by telling Stewart: “I apologize to you and your children,” eliciting strong applause from the crowd.

Afterward, Stewart said he was tired of hearing the governor talk about black people in ways he felt were derogatory.

“For my kids, sure I’m glad that he apologized,” Stewart said. But he added, “What will he say next?”

The governor also faced numerous questions on education funding.

LePage reiterated his strong opposition to the voter-approved 3 percent tax surcharge – which he has proposed nullifying – on Mainers earning more than $200,000 a year to provide more money for education. He also criticized the phase-out of the tip credit – also approved by voters as part of a minimum wage increase – that allows restaurant owners to pay tipped workers less than the minimum wage.

At one point during the event, several dozen younger audience members began shouting “Respect our vote” and then marched out of the hall together.

On education funding, LePage said his administration has increased K-12 funding in each budget. But some in the crowd accused the governor of shifting more of the burden of funding schools and teacher retirement onto cities and towns.

“That’s because you are shifting other liabilities to local districts,” one audience member told the governor.

LePage also repeated his contention that the problem facing Maine is that too much money is spent on administration – with 174 superintendents for 177,000 students – and not enough on classrooms.

“It’s the management of the school districts, it’s the school boards and the teacher’s union,” LePage said. “They do not want to change.”

LePage’s proposed $6.8 billion, two-year budget would dramatically alter the state’s education funding formula, in part by eliminating all state funding for school administration.

Beginning in 2019, the state would provide state funds only for “direct instruction and support for student learning.” The administration argues that shift will result in better accountability. However, school and municipal officials predict that change would shift more costs onto municipalities, which will then be forced to increase property taxes.

During an hours-long public hearing last week, critics said LePage’s education budget proposal will cost schools statewide as much as $190 million and reduce state support for 65 percent of school districts.

LePage spent part of the past two weeks in Washington, D.C. – fueling speculation about possible prospects in the Trump administration – and said he is headed back there this week. He attended events as part of the Republican Governor’s Association. He also met with President Trump and posted photographs of himself and his wife with Vice President Mike Pence.

Only part of his activities in D.C. have become public, however, because LePage’s staff has refused to provide the media with a detailed list of events the governor attended. Asked for details on this week’s return trip, LePage’s spokeswoman told the Portland Press Herald the office would provide that information “next week.”

LePage served as a panelist at the Conservative Political Action Conference on welfare reform and then discussed his administration’s efforts to reduce welfare spending on Fox News. On Wednesday, he told the Yarmouth audience that part of his trip to Washington was to push for additional work requirements for welfare recipients.

“I am going to Washington … and that is one of the specific issues, to have a work requirement,” LePage said.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312.

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