FARMINGTON, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage talked about lowering energy costs, reducing and eventually eliminating the state’s income tax, welfare reform and high student college loan debt during a town hall-style meeting Tuesday night at the University of Maine at Farmington.
More meetings are being scheduled across the state.
More than 100 people came out to hear the governor speak and some to ask questions. Audience members could write down questions for the governor to answer.
LePage got in digs against the Legislature for not approving his budget plan and bills he submitted, which he said would have moved the state forward.
Of the 186 people in the Legislature, LePage said one-third of them are there for the right reasons — to help Maine people. One-third are there for power, control and money. The other third are there to be told what to do — and they do it well, he said.
For the past five years he has been working on lowering taxes in the state of Maine, LePage said.
“Maine is a poor state, and it is over-taxed,” he said.
The U.S. income tax average is 5.55 percent, he said. If his budget plan had gone through, it would have lowered the rate from 7.95 percent to 5.75 percent, he said. After the Legislature passed a budget, the top income tax rate is 7.15 percent, he said.
When he started as governor, Maine’s top income tax was 8.5 percent.
“I am the bad guy in Augusta because I am trying to lower the income tax,” he said, adding that people are moving to states where income tax doesn’t exist or is lower. LePage said he believes in smaller government and “keeping what you earn.”
“All I am trying to do is compete and attract younger people to Maine,” he said.
He compared Maine, which has a median age of 44, with Utah, which has a median age of 29, and said hundreds of jobs are being lost in Maine just this year alone.
LePage said he and others are working on a citizens initiative for the income tax issue.
Asked by one person how eliminating income tax would affect school funding, he answered it would be offset by higher sales tax. He also said that school districts need to become more efficient, including by reducing the number of superintendents in the state.
LePage also discussed his and his staff’s efforts to lower the cost of energy in the state and make it more efficient. Several businesses, including paper mills, have cited the high cost of energy in Maine as factors for closing down or reducing workforces.
LePage said he and his energy team have been working to reduce the state’s reliance on oil, noting that natural gas is more efficient. He’s said he’s trying to get Maine and other New England states working to get natural gas lines expanded in the region. He said he has no problem with people talking about wind and solar power but argued that if you have wind and solar, you still have to have a backup power source because of the weather.
“We need to use natural gas or we are going to lose the companies we have,” including paper mills, he said.
He also spoke about heat pumps, biomass and hydropower for energy efficiency.
In 2011, about 80 percent of the homes in Maine were using oil, and that number is down to 62 percent, LePage said.
LePage said he has fought for five years to implement welfare reform and improve the system. He just introduced new guidelines that include restricting benefits if someone has more than $5,000 in assets.
“I believe in a safety net for the most vulnerable,” he said. “If you have a house, car, jet skis, the state will ask you to sell one or two,” he said.
“I’m not going to help anybody just for the sake of helping. … I am not that compassionate,” he said.
He also took the Legislature to task for not adding as many drug enforcement agents as he had made provisions for in his budget plan.
“We have an epidemic” of drug abuse, he said, adding that three babies per day are born addicted or affected by opiates.
He also told people that the Legislature killed his bill meant to reduce student loan debt and allow more young people struggling with college debt to stay in Maine.