MADISON, Maine — Energy, education and cutting government red tape were the big topics of discussion during the Capitol for a Day town hall meeting at Madison Junior High School on Thursday evening.
Gov. Paul LePage and members of his Cabinet took questions from the audience during the hour-and-a-half meeting. Between 150-200 people attended including state representatives and senators.
However, the first question from the audience accused Treasurer Bruce Poliquin of the merits of his receiving a $5,000-a-year tax break on his waterfront property in Georgetown through the Maine Tree Growth Program.
“I understand why folks want to take shots at us,” said Poliquin, referring to the scandal of former Maine Turnpike Authority Executive Director Paul Violette pleading guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars that were misappropriated during his tenure.
LePage stood by Poliquin.
“There have been a few instances where people have stepped on the line in my administration,” he said. “And they’re gone in less than 24 hours.”
The topic quickly turned to education, where LePage and Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen had to defend the state’s policy on school choice and giving state money to religious schools.
“We’re not giving them money because they’re teaching religion,” said LePage. He emphasized that nonpublic schools such as religious, academies and technical schools all have to have the same certification in order to receive state money.
“It’s not a novel idea,” said Bowen. “The law was changed in 1981 [to restrict religious schools from receiving state tuition].”
LePage said students would benefit from having more options through school choice.
“[The United States is] 27th in the world [in education],” said LePage. “If parents are going to be more involved then we need to give them some choice.”
Having another option from getting from Nova Scotia to Quebec was also asked by an audience member. Commissioner of the Department of Transportation David Bernhardt said an east-west highway through Maine would cost about $1 billion. The state can’t afford it, he said.
LePage said the state is looking for private investors, but added that the federal government has also taken an interest in it.
“But they have less money than we do,” said LePage with a laugh. He added that the premiers of Quebec and Nova Scotia are both in favor of the highway.
While visiting area businesses on Thursday, LePage said he was often asked about energy costs. The town hall meeting was no different. The subject was brought up twice.
LePage said Mainers pay the 12th highest electricity costs in the nation at 30 percent above the national average. He said Mainers pay about 13 cents per kilowatt hour compared to Quebec which is 4.36 cents.
“For the next 10 to 15 years, whether we want to or not, we have to go with the most inexpensive form of electricity to have a prayer to stay competitive,” said LePage.
Cutting government regulations and red tape was also brought up.
Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture Walter Whitcomb said there are 1,200 pages of regulations involving people who process meat.
“Somewhere in 1,200 pages we should be able to cut back a little bit,” said Whitcomb.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture. His name is Walter Whitcomb, not Bob Whitcomb.