YARMOUTH, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage told an overflow crowd at his town hall meeting Wednesday night that he will return to Washington, D.C., this week in an effort to convince his fellow Republicans that anyone who receives welfare, including subsidized health care, should be required to work.
“I am going to Washington, and that’s one of the specific issues: to have a work requirement,” LePage told a crowd that included a mix of supporters and opponents. “The country needs every single American who is able to contribute to the success of the country. I’m a believer in the safety net. But if you’re able, you need to contribute.”
LePage’s comments came on the heels of an extended trip to the nation’s capital and at least two national television appearances in which he criticized the Republican health care plan, released this week, to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Among other issues, LePage is calling for Congress to repeal the portion of the law that allowed states to expand their Medicaid programs to include coverage for non-disabled adults.
LePage’s appearance at the AMVETS hall in Yarmouth was his first town hall in several weeks because of weather and the governor’s travels. His supporters and opponents overfilled the room and at times were shouting each other down during exchanges about energy, climate change, the minimum wage and Question 2 on last November’s ballot, which created a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 to benefit public schools.
Rosalee Lamm, a Portland High School teacher, asked him why administrators in her district have said for the past several years that state aid is shrinking.
“You’re being lied to,” said LePage, who countered that public school funding has risen in every year of his governorship.
While LePage’s statement is true, education professionals have long argued that state school aid increases during his tenure — some of which have been added to by the Legislature — have not kept up with the rising cost of items such as salaries and insurance coverage in the public school system.
State spending on public education has increased 27 percent since 2004 to more than $1 billion a year, but during that same time the state has diluted the stream to traditional schools by approving charter schools without dedicated funding to them and pushed costs, such as teacher retirement, to the local level.
In a bid to reduce the number of superintendents in Maine, LePage has proposed this year that local municipalities pick up the full cost of public school administrators, which would further strain local budgets unless school boards opt to consolidate and share costs with their neighbors. LePage suggested Wednesday night that Maine needs only one school district per county — the state has more than 175.
On another topic, some audience members brought up LePage’s gruff and divisive public comments, such as insulting lawmakers and making racially charged comments about black drug dealers coming to Maine and impregnating white girls.
Garrett Stewart of Portland, who sat in the front row for Wednesday’s event, spoke after someone else who was called on gave him the microphone.
“It’s very hurtful to my children because my kids hear this stuff on television,” Stewart, who is a Bath Iron Works employee, said. “When you get on TV and talk about people of color and drug dealers, we’re not all like that. … When my kids hear that, it’s hurtful.”
After a heated exchange with the man, LePage apologized.
“If I offended your children and you, that’s not what I intended,” he said. “I apologize.”
Another woman asked the governor if he is taking steps to use a more respectful tone when he speaks in public. LePage did not apologize in response.
“Respect is not given. Respect is earned,” he said. “I am more disrespected on a daily basis than anyone in this room. I shoulder it, and I move on.”
On the economy, LePage said Maine’s high taxes and the minimum wage hike passed last year by Maine voters make economic development difficult. As an example, he said the state is having trouble finding investors to create a factory to turn Maine potatoes into potato flakes for food products.
“The reason it’s so important is that two-thirds of the potatoes that are grown in Maine are not of the quality that can make it onto the table so they go into a landfill because there’s no other place to go,” LePage said. “We used to have starch factories but they’re all gone.”
Some members of the crowd agreed that LePage was open and upfront with his answers, including Lamm, who did not vote for LePage.
“I was actually somewhat impressed with him,” she said after the event. “I kind of understood it before but I was like, ‘This is where he’s coming from. His No. 1 priority is running the state like a business.’”
But Lamm said that is not all a governor should do.
“It’s one of the things he should do, but a person who has that one agenda is probably not the right person to manage millions of people,” she said.
Dick and Sue Walls of Gray said they are staunch LePage supporters and were disappointed with what they called disrespect shown by some audience members toward LePage.
“He really loves the state of Maine and is trying to do what is best,” Sue Walls, an accountant at a public school, said. “I just wish that everyone could work together to help his ideas go forward.”