FORT KENT, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s office deflected criticism that the governor was impatient, abrupt and at times rude Tuesday during the first of three forums to allow Aroostook County residents to weigh in on a budget proposal calling for major cuts in MaineCare, saying political opponents tried to detract from the true nature of the meeting.
LePage was in Fort Kent to talk about the proposed MaineCare cuts ahead of a scheduled forum Wednesday in Presque Isle and Thursday in Houlton. The governor did not attend Wednesday’s event and will not attend the Houlton meeting, according to LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett.
LePage said Tuesday that MaineCare cuts are needed to avoid having the program run out of money by April 1. Cuts in benefits and eligibility are needed to close a $221 million state budget gap through mid-2013, the governor said. Many of those attending the sessions were concerned about cutting funds for private nonmedical institutions, or PNMIs.
Judy Paradis, a former state legislator from northern Aroostook County, acknowledged on Wednesday that she challenged LePage on some of his campaign promises and other statements at the Fort Kent hearing. She said that the governor “wasn’t ready” for questions from the crowd, “did not seem like he had been prepared by staff,” and was rude to the audience.
According to a citizen’s videotape of the session, she criticized LePage during the meeting, saying, “You come off as a bully.”
LePage, seeking to emphasize the state’s financial predicament, asked, “What planet are you on?”
“There was an audible gasp when he said that to me,” she said Wednesday. “I thought that he had a short fuse, but now I realize that he has no fuse. He just wasn’t ready for the questions that the residents of the St. John Valley were there to put to him.”
Charles Faulkner, who attended the Fort Kent event and Wednesday’s event in Presque Isle, said that he was a LePage supporter but acknowledged that he was surprised at how “abrupt” LePage was during the Fort Kent session.
“It looked to me like he did not want to be there,” he said. “I thought he was rude and dismissive to some people. I wondered why he came at all. It wasn’t that nice to watch.”
Rep. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, also attended Tuesday’s hearing in Fort Kent and the Presque Isle session. He said that he felt the governor should not have attended the event.
“I personally believe that if I had been on his staff, I would have kept him in Augusta,” he said. “He just ended up embroiled in the whole debate. I don’t think he came across very well at all. Some of the questions were very intricate, relating to Medicaid and things like that, so I can understand him not being able to answer all of the questions, but he did not make himself look good at times.”
Bennett defended LePage, as did Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, and Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou.
Ayotte said the governor had been “classy” during the meeting but became frustrated that residents were asking him the same question repeatedly. He also said he believed that some longtime LePage opponents were not at the meeting for its intended purpose.
Edgecomb also defended the governor.
“I thought he answered the questions well,” said Edgecomb. “Some people did come there with a political agenda, you could tell, but I think the governor was responsive to the crowd.”
Bennett said LePage came to Fort Kent to listen to residents’ concerns and rebutted comments that the governor took the microphone at the event and refused to relinquish it.
“These proposals are not cuts. The state is out of money and there is no more stimulus money coming in,” she said. “These are difficult decisions. There were some people in the crowd who came to attack the governor, and that was frustrating.”
She also denied that LePage wanted to be elsewhere, saying that he spent an hour after the event visiting Crosswinds, a residential care facility in Fort Kent, at the request of the operator.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.