LISBON, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Tuesday took his tax reform message to the Open Door Bible Baptist Church, where an audience of about 100 people frequently broke into applause in support of the Republican governor’s proposals to reform welfare and eliminate the state’s income tax.
Unlike his sometimes angry news conference at the Blaine House on Friday afternoon, LePage took a more measured — but no less strident — approach in hammering home his message that Maine won’t achieve prosperity unless its residents compel legislators to eliminate the state income tax, cut overall government spending and transform public assistance to what LePage sees as a ladder toward jobs instead of a safety net.
The town hall-style meeting took place as the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee worked into the night attempting to agree on a biennial budget. LePage has acknowledged that spending plan will not include his plan to eliminate the income tax after Senate Republicans hashed out a budget deal with Democrats that dumps LePage’s tax reform proposal in favor of an effort to pass a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature to pass any income tax increase.
That compromise on the $6.57 billion two-year budget does not include an income tax cut in the biennium that starts July 1.
Calling the budget compromise and other legislative opposition to his proposals “backroom deals,” LePage vowed Tuesday to lead a referendum drive after the Legislature adjourns to give Maine voters a chance to repeal the income tax.
As part of his effort to raise public support for the tax reform package he unveiled in January, LePage held seven similar public forums in March and April, but Tuesday’s event was only announced late Friday afternoon, just hours after LePage criticized Senate Republicans who oppose his plan — among them, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon, who did not attend the forum.
During Tuesday’s forum, the governor renewed the pledge he made Friday to veto any bill sponsored by a Democrat until opponents of a constitutional amendment to eliminate Maine’s income tax allow it to proceed.
He also maintained the vow he made in March to campaign against any lawmaker who votes against his efforts to eliminate the income tax, telling the crowd to call their legislators “and tell them you support the governor. Tell them you support welfare reform and reducing the income tax.”
While the compromise that Senate Republican leaders made with Democrats on the two-year budget that must be in place by July 1 would not reduce income taxes in the short term, Mason and other Republican legislators have voiced support for LePage’s call for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the income tax by 2020.
Asked Monday whether LePage was targeting him by scheduling a forum in Lisbon, Mason told the Sun Journal he couldn’t speak for LePage, but he would not attend the forum because he would be working at the State House.
“We are looking at double sessions this week, and my constitutional duty is to be in my seat voting,” he said. Mason said Maine had seen “many wonderful things” under LePage’s administration, including job growth, regulatory reform and a reduction in the income tax, and he looks forward to more.
Nevertheless, five young adults stood outside the forum handing out pamphlets stating that Mason supports a constitutional amendment to eliminate the income tax and “real welfare reform,” among other reform measures.
LePage on Tuesday did not mention Mason by name, instead focusing his criticism on two of his most common Democratic targets, House Speaker Mark Eves of North Berwick and Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond of Portland.
In responding to questions from the largely supportive crowd, LePage recycled some of his common criticisms. He repeated his claim that Maine has too many school administrators and that undocumented immigrants pose a public health threat. He also beat the drum again on his refrain that Democrats have made a mess of Maine government for the past generation and that they act out of self-interest rather than on behalf of Maine’s working people.
“Why are they not backing your plan?” asked Eileen Heidrich of Turner.
LePage replied by saying Democrats were resisting him because they are trying to retain their “one-party management” of state government.
“That’s why I’m not very popular among Democrats — and because I’m very blunt,” he said.
“Folks, you elected them, and they’re saying no to you,” he said. “You remember in 2016 … we have to get rid of the income tax or get rid of the bums who don’t want you to have a say.”
In addition to Mason, generally considered one of the Senate’s most conservative members, Lisbon voters have elected Rep. Dale Crafts, another arch-conservative, to the Legislature in each of the past three elections.
Others at Tuesday’s gathering simply spoke out in support of LePage’s administration. LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett read a comment from Roger Bickford of Lewiston who said, “Please stay the course,” which drew further applause.
After the forum, Jesse Scott of Lisbon Falls said he was pleased with LePage’s remarks.
“I like his agenda — especially welfare reform and cutting taxes,” Scott said. “There are too many people not carrying their fair share. We need to get these Democrats to stop playing politics and start working for the people.”
Heidrich said she was “disappointed” in Mason, whom she voted for in November, for not supporting LePage’s “great plan” that “is good for everybody.”