That did not soften the governor’s tone, or his convictions.
“I’m not here to persuade you or to convince you to agree with what I am doing,” said LePage at the University of Southern Maine’s Abromson Center auditorium. “What I’m here to tell you is what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.”
LePage clearly had numerous supporters in the audience and was cheered on several occasions, but as the scheduled hour-long event stretched to nearly 90 minutes, exchanges between the governor and the audience grew increasingly tense.
During a discussion about how to fight Maine’s growing heroin problem, which is sure to be in focus when the Legislature convenes in January, LePage saw his strongest push-back of the night.
“We spent $76 million on treatment in 2014,” said LePage in response to questions from the audience. “You can go up to $150 million and you’re not going to solve the problem. … I think that’s a disproportionate share of money spent on trying to treat and the success rate is very low.”
An audience member shouted “Does drug treatment work, Mr. Governor?”
“Not with heroin,” said LePage, who then doubled down with a criticism of Narcan, a substance used to revive addicts who have overdosed.
“Narcan is not saving lives. It’s extending lives,” said LePage, who said he has seen data that 90 percent of heroin users eventually die as a result of their addiction.
Though the Legislature allocated money for four new agents earlier this year, LePage has said repeatedly that he will call on the Maine National Guard unless lawmakers promise to fund 10 more agents. Lawmakers from both parties have insisted that more resources for treatment and recovery services be included.
Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said after the event that legislative leaders have been working on a package in recent days at the State House and that there are a half-dozen bills involving drug addiction that are awaiting legislative action.
Pressed by reporters, Alfond said he expects most lawmakers will likely support LePage’s call for 10 new agents.
“It will happen,” said Alfond.
House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, issued a statement late Tuesday announcing that legislative leaders will hold a media event Wednesday at the State House to discuss their latest comprehensive plan to deal with Maine’s spike in heroin deaths.
Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, sent a letter to LePage on Tuesday, expressing optimism that the Legislature could find funding for the additional drug agents LePage seeks, despite the fact that LePage had declined offers to meet in person with Thibodeau for months.
LePage continued to offer withering criticisms of some legislators — including calling Alfond a sellout — about one-third of whom he said are essentially dead weight who vote the way they are told to vote.
“They’re told how to work and how to vote. Bad people,” said LePage. “I’m not an unreasonable manager. I’m just a very tough negotiator. I’ve not met anyone in Augusta who is willing to sit and negotiate.”
Alfond said voters deserve more than LePage’s “baseless insults” of lawmakers.
“I’ve always tried to take the high road, to seek collaboration with the governor, even as he peddled division,” said Alfond. “But to suggest I don’t represent my constituents first and foremost is beyond the pale.”
A question from the approximately 300-person audience about the Land for Maine’s Future bonds ratcheted up the tension again. LePage has been saying for months that he will refuse to authorize the sale of $11.5 million in voter-approved conservation bonds unless the Legislature agrees to spend $5 million in revenue from timber harvests on public land for a home-heating program for low-income Mainers. Last month, LePage freed up $2.2 million that the program already had on hand.
On Tuesday, LePage said the heating program is only one piece of the puzzle. He said that conservation bonds, which fund the Land for Maine’s Future program, are gouging taxpayers.
“I’m not going to sign off on a bill that’s going to give 164 acres to a town and two people are going to make a half million each,” said LePage, who did not specify which project he was talking about. “That’s gouging the taxpayers. I won’t do it. It’s corrupt.”
One audience member asked which industries LePage sees as promising in terms of Maine’s economic future, to which he replied aeronautics, machining, biotechnology and education. He suggested that the state’s blueberry and lobster industries could find vast new markets in other countries, such as China.
“We just need to market ourselves a little better,” he said. “We need to be a little bit more willing.”
Alfond said he was pleased that the governor came to Portland but disappointed in his tone and what the Democrat claimed to be factual inaccuracies.
“There was so much misuse of facts. He doesn’t even know that there are 186 people in the Legislature,” said Alfond, referring to two statements by LePage about there being 181 lawmakers. “The governor uses these words because they poll very well, but they only tell part of the story. The Legislature looks at the whole story.”