PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage spoke Friday with the City Council and local education officials, outlining initiatives he would like to put in place and policies of the city and the state he hopes to change for the better.
LePage spent an hour with the group of about 14 people on Friday morning at City Hall before moving on to events in the St. John Valley. He came at the request of City Manager Jim Bennett, who said Friday he extended an invitation for all elected officials to meet with councilors after the 2010 elections.
During the hourlong question-and-answer period, LePage addressed everything from concerns about education to ideas for supporting agriculture in Aroostook County.
Councilor Emily Smith told the governor the city has a number of tax-exempt properties, such as colleges and a hospital, in the community. Smith wanted ideas concerning how to get such entities to contribute to the tax base.
LePage said he has a bill “in the thought process” that would encourage such organizations to pay service fees to their communities. But he conceded that attempts at similar legislation had failed in the past. In the meantime, he said, he was focused on paying the close to $400 million the state owes to its hospitals for MaineCare reimbursements.
“If we are paying hospitals, then they can pay their bills,” he said.
Higher education also was in focus during the meeting, and LePage said he believes the state’s education system needs to be overhauled on several levels. Councilor Mel Hovey said he believes colleges need to do more to improve quality and efficiency. He noted that some campuses hold classes for less than half the year and sit idle the rest of the time.
“The things they do in the summer really don’t amount to much and don’t produce much revenue,” he said. “I think that needs to change.”
LePage agreed, adding that work needs to be done to enhance the education system as a whole.
He said that enrollment at universities in Maine is dropping while tuition is rising. He also said he does not believe colleges are doing enough to attract out-of-state students, which would bring in more money. The governor also said statistics show that 54 percent of high school graduates in the state need to take remedial courses when they go on to community college. The figure is 25 percent at the university level, according to LePage.
“We are paying for education twice,” he said. “We are paying for kindergarten through 12th grade education and we are paying for remediation. We need to stop that.”
He said it is not practical to assume that everyone will go to college.
“There is nothing wrong with a vocational-technical education,” LePage said.
The governor also shared his ideas for advancing agriculture in the state with Councilor Randy Smith, a longtime potato grower.
LePage said his staff is heavily focused on “farming, fishing and forestry,” and several bills are being prepared regarding regulatory reform to address agricultural, pesticide and economic development issues. He said he has a process in mind to streamline the permitting process for new businesses and is exploring ways to lower energy costs by looking to alternative sources.
“There is no magic wand,” LePage said, but he is talking with officials about several options, including nuclear and hydropower.
“If it doesn’t lower the cost of energy, it is not on my radar screen,” he told the group. “We’ll be pushing hard for energy, but it is going to be hard.”
Bennett said Friday he was pleased with the results of the meeting.
“It is always nice to have the undivided attention of the governor for an hour,” he said. “I think he listened and reacted well to our concerns. It was a good meeting.”