PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage began his Capitol for a Day initiative Friday in Maine’s largest city, starting at a Portland Regional Chamber lunch and visiting several companies and a homeless shelter.
He planned to end the day with a town hall forum in Westbrook.
The press was not allowed in during visits to National Semiconductor, Barber Foods, the Harbor Fish Market and Preble Street, a soup kitchen and shelter operation. But LePage’s talk with the Chamber was open and he took questions afterward.
The first question, from Ralph Carmona, concerned the governor’s relationship with the NAACP. Carmona said leadership of the group feels LePage has neglected to work with them.
“We need to heal that breach,” Carmona said.
LePage said his office has tried to set up meetings with the NAACP’s Maine chapter, but the group hasn’t been able to meet at the times available. He said he thought the group was trying to get publicity at his expense.
“It’s not an issue of civil rights at all. They want press, and I’m willing to give it to them, but it’s going to be on my terms,” said LePage.
He did say he thought civil rights “are absolutely critical,” and made reference to a Ku Klux Klan rally held in Brownville Junction early last century that was aimed at keeping French Canadians out of Maine.
He also repeated his assertion that the NAACP is a special interest group.
“They serve one-tenth of 1 percent of the population,” he said.
The executive director of the NAACP in Maine didn’t return calls for comment.
Richard Littlefield, vice president at Camden National Bank, asked LePage if he supported regional land use planning as a job creation tool. LePage said he’s beginning to modify his position in that area.
Originally, he had planned on sending the responsibilities of the Land Use Regulation Commission to the counties. But that could result in inconsistent policies, as different counties have different needs, he said. He said he’s looking at a system that would have county commissioners make up the majority of boards that would deal with land use in different regions.
“It’s something we’re considering,” he said.
Michael Bourque, vice president for corporate marketing and communications at Maine Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co., asked LePage about his plans to keep young people in Maine and to attract them here, too. LePage noted that education was one area he didn’t cut in his proposed two-year budget, and actually added some funds there. He said he wants to see a greater emphasis on technical education in the schools. He said that 54 percent of students going to the community college system need to take some remedial courses, as compared to 25 percent of those going to the university system.
“We cannot afford to pay twice for the same education,” he said. “We’ve got to get it right in K through 12.”
Also on his budget, he noted it “must be pretty good — because I haven’t seen anyone happy with it.”
The state is in trouble because of pension responsibilities coming due, he said, and cuts must be made. He said he is asking the attorney general to look into whether the state can change its health care mandates before federal law kicks in, in order to lower what Maine must provide.
He said he is working on changing the state’s environmental and business regulations, and said he’d like to do more regarding energy costs. He lamented the fact that the public utilities commissioners are appointed, and he can’t immediately have “like-minded people on the commission.” Vendean Vafiades’ term expires in 2013; David Littell’s in 2015; and Jack Cashman’s next month.
He also said the biggest threat to Maine’s environment was pollution from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. LePage said he hoped to bring up that problem next week when he is in Washington, D.C. LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt said he believed LePage was attending a meeting of the National Governors Association.
During his inaugural speech, LePage promised to re-introduce the Capitol for a Day program, which Gov. John McKernan began during his administration in an effort to bring the “two Maines” together after his 1986 election.