In this Aug. 21, 2021, file photo, former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, marches in the State of Maine Bicentennial Parade in Lewiston. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Gov. Paul LePage floated a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Mainers receiving welfare benefits on Tuesday despite speaking out against the state’s requirement for health care workers.

The proposal, which LePage said could encompass Mainers in programs from MaineCare, unemployment and other benefits, is notable because no state has put forward such a requirement. His idea faced opposition from fellow Republicans on Wednesday, cutting oddly across coalitions since the party generally favors more welfare restrictions but opposes vaccine mandates. It would face bipartisan pushback if ever presented to the Legislature.

LePage, who is challenging Gov. Janet Mills later this year, has been critical of the Democratic governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers, saying he would repeal it on his first day in office. Shrinking public assistance rolls was perhaps the chief goal of his eight-year Blaine House tenure and was realized through improving national and state economies and tightened eligibility standards that he championed.

Mills’ mandate — which drove up vaccination rates among hospital and nursing home employees but also led a small share to leave the workforce — has come under more scrutiny in the past week while staffing shortages forced one Maine hospital to allow employees to return to work despite testing positive for COVID-19 amid the omicron variant surge.

LePage said in a WVOM interview Wednesday morning that if it were up to him, he would rehire the first responders and other workers who left because of it. But in an interview with the Bangor Daily News, LePage suggested a vaccine mandate for people receiving public benefits as a way to help increase vaccination rates.

He pointed to evidence that lower-income people are less likely to get vaccinated as a reason the mandate could improve public health, though he said the goal would be to get people vaccinated, not force them to work instead of getting vaccinated.

“It’s not about getting people to work, it’s about getting rid of COVID,” he said.

Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation has found that people with incomes below $40,000 are less likely to be vaccinated. But surveys also found that other factors, such as age and partisan affiliation, were more strongly correlated with likelihood of vaccination than income.

Maine currently only requires the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers and first responders. A federal mandate could require workers at companies with more than 100 employees to get the vaccine, although the Supreme Court indicated last week that the requirement could be struck down.

“It’s unconscionable that you will be fired, you will lose your job, if you don’t get vaccinated, but [for] people who are taking services, taxpayer dollars, there’s not even a request to get vaccinated,” LePage said.

Maine has not proposed any sort of mandate linked to use of public benefits, although the state has offered assistance for MaineCare recipients looking to get vaccinated, such as free rides to vaccine sites.

Other states have gone further than Maine to mandate vaccines, but requirements have largely been linked to employment or indoor activities. Massachusetts requires all state executive branch employees to be vaccinated, while Connecticut requires teachers to be vaccinated, New York City requires proof of vaccination to enter indoor venues including gyms and restaurants.

LePage, who is himself vaccinated and has received a booster shot, said he would consider first encouraging Mainers receiving state benefits to get vaccinated, saying he was “clearly against mandates in all respects.” But he would consider the “bully pulpit” if that did not work, he said.

The proposal could encounter opposition from normal LePage allies. Legislative Republicans have put opposition to Maine’s mandate for health care workers front and center this legislative session. Rep. Tracy Quint, R-Hodgdon, introduced a bill that would bar the state from requiring the vaccine for several years, although it is likely to fail in the Democratic-led Legislature.

Rep. Laurel Libby, R-Auburn, a registered nurse who has been outspoken against Mills’ mandate, said she would oppose a requirement for people receiving welfare benefits as well.

“I’m against medical mandates in all forms,” Libby said.