NEWCASTLE, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage defended his tax cut proposals, pledged to improve Maine’s mental health programs and called on the federal government to put people before bald eagles during a town hall meeting in this midcoast town Friday night.
The crowd of roughly 250 people who gathered in a school gymnasium Friday evening included both ardent supporters and fierce critics of the administration, often identifiable by stickers reading either “LePage” or “61%,” a reference to the majority of voters who did not vote for the governor in last November’s five-person race.
LePage and several of his close advisers fielded questions on everything from health care reform to his administration’s attitude toward teachers unions and funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.
The first question, however, came from an Edgecomb resident upset that a recently discovered eagle’s nest was blocking the long-awaited Route 1 bypass of traffic-clogged Wiscasset. Federal agencies have said that the protected nest cannot be moved, so the proposed route was no longer viable.
LePage said he would “absolutely support” moving the nest.
“I absolutely believe the federal government should put people ahead of eagles,” LePage said. “We have gotten to a point in our society where humans don’t count and I think that’s unfortunate. I’m a big believer that people pay taxes and eagles don’t.”
That last comment garnered both cheers and scoffs from the crowd gathered in a gym heavily decorated with eagles, Lincoln Academy’s mascot.
The issue of taxes came up several times, including when the last questioner pressed the governor on how he could support “tax cuts and giveaways to wealthy families” while reducing Medicaid benefits to low-income Mainers.
The question was a reference to a tax proposal endorsed by the governor that would, among other things, lower Maine’s top income tax rate from 8.5 percent to 7.95 percent and double the “death tax” exemption on estates from $1 million to $2 million.
But LePage said the roughly $200 million would be spread among 439,000 of Maine’s 635,000 taxpayers, including eliminating income tax obligations for families earning less than $30,000. That will allow the state to reduce welfare benefits because those families who will be able to keep more of their money, LePage said.
“It is not tax cuts for the rich, believe me. It is tax cuts for the poor,” LePage said. His tax cut comments elicited loud cheers and a standing ovation from the sizable number of his supporters in the crowd.
Another issue that came up twice and was the subject of numerous signs in the audience was the administration’s recent proposal to eliminate all state funding for MPBN — equivalent to roughly $4 million over the next two years.
Critics have suggested that the administration is targeting MPBN for political reasons because of the network’s news coverage and, in the process, harming Maine’s only statewide outlet for news, cultural and educational programming. One protester seated near the stage came dressed in a costume of Big Bird, the popular character on public broadcasting’s “Sesame Street.”
The governor offered this curt response: “In good conscience, you cannot ask a governor to go cut welfare on individuals and then keep corporate welfare on the books,” he said.
Another speaker pointed out that the final version of the health insurance overhaul bill that recently passed the Legislature after a partisan debate was never the subject of a public hearing. LePage replied that legislative leaders made that decision, not his administration.
But the governor predicted the bill would result in Maine people from age 18 to 80 being able to afford insurance, a contention strongly disputed by the bill’s critics.
In response to another question suggesting that the administration was blaming teachers unions for blocking reforms, Education Commissioner and former teacher Stephen Bowen said he believes he has a good relationship with Maine Education Association officials.
“We may not agree on everything,” Bowen said. “They absolutely have a seat at the table and I am happy to sit down with them any time.”
LePage also criticized state government as “abandoning” people with mental health problems in recent years and said his administration will put extra emphasis on community-based assistance rather than allowing the mentally ill to end up jails.
Critics of the governor’s budget have warned, however, that a proposal to eliminate Medicaid assistance for 16,000 single, childless adults could result in more people with mental health or substance abuse problems in jail or the emergency room due to lack of medical care.
Friday’s town hall was the final event of a “Capital for the Day” tour of Lincoln County. LePage also visited the independent school the Center for Teaching and Learning, Washburn & Doughty Associates commercial shipyard, the Boothbay Harbor Shipyard and the Maine Department of Marine Resources biotoxin testing laboratory.