BIDDEFORD, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage restarted his public town hall series Wednesday night in Biddeford with one of the more ornery crowds he has faced on the tour.
As the 90-minute event progressed, some members of the audience grew bolder about shouting questions and challenging LePage’s statements while others urged them to be more respectful. The governor, for his part, remained calm and even answered a question about energy policy from one man who yelled repeatedly, “We are Mainers. Gov. LePage, please resign!”
LePage’s staff eventually asked the man to leave while the governor attempted to quiet the crowd.
“I will stay as long as you’re respectful,” said LePage several times.
Another man later yelled, “Stop talking, governor, and listen to people. Don’t you want to hear your constituents?”
Despite the outbursts, LePage stayed at the Biddeford Middle School event more than 30 minutes past the scheduled end time and addressed a spectrum of issues ranging from Maine’s tax rates to why he is proposing changes to two of the referendums that voters approved in November 2016: the minimum wage increase and the 3 percent surcharge in income taxes on income over $200,000 per year. On these points, LePage faced some of his most energetic resistance.
“How can you tell Maine voters that they’re too stupid to vote for their own good?” asked one woman.
“I don’t think I ever said that, but I don’t believe that you, ma’am, have read the 32 pages behind the minimum wage bill,” said LePage. “Did you read it?”
The woman admitted she hadn’t.
LePage has said publicly numerous times that he doesn’t believe many Mainers understood the full content of the bills they voted on. Late in Wednesday’s event he blamed Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap for writing the referendum questions in a way that would compel voters to favor them.
“The problem is the party in power,” said LePage. “The secretary of state writes the questions, and his party determines them.”
He took particular umbrage with the education surtax referendum.
“Question 2, the 3 percent surcharge, is completely a misnomer,” he said. “It was a bill of goods sold to the Maine people, and it was totally erroneous. There’s so much money for education, we don’t know what to spend it on.”
LePage hammered on a theme that is familiar to anyone who has attended his town hall meetings in the past: why he thinks Maine lags behind other states on prosperity. He advocated for lower taxes and looser regulations and said Maine is losing the battle over the economy to nearby New England states because those states are more financially welcoming.
“If people don’t feel they can become prosperous and feed their families and grow, they are going to leave,” said LePage.
In response to a question about why he is proposing no pay increase for retired teachers in his biennial budget proposal, LePage said Maine is not in a financial position to make that investment.
“There’s no way you can possibly please everybody, and if you try, you will be a failure,” he said. “In order to be prosperous, for our nation to be prosperous, you’ve got to make sure that people are able to earn money and keep their money and not have the government keep it all.”
LePage began his series of town hall meetings in September 2015 in order to promote his policy goals, including, at the time, eliminating Maine’s income tax. He has used the events for an evolving list of purposes, including promoting his welfare reform and energy policy goals and commenting on developments at the State House.
Audience members had mixed reactions.
“After six years, we expect him to tell it like it is,” said Michael Sawtell before the event. “That’s what I like about him.”
“He’s a bully,” said one woman who wouldn’t identify herself as she left the auditorium. “He doesn’t tell the truth.”
This year’s town hall meetings are expected to continue, though the next one has not yet been scheduled.
LePage ended the meeting amid chatter in the audience and a few directing their ire at him.
“Thank you all,” he said. “I wish it had been a little bit more respectful, but thank you anyway.”