BAR HARBOR — Gov. Paul LePage blamed the Legislature for nearly all of the state’s problems except for blackflies and black ice at his town hall-style meeting at Mount Desert Island High School Tuesday evening.
On issue after issue – taxes, welfare spending, energy costs, education, conservation – the governor faulted state lawmakers, sometimes in harsh terms, for failing to act in the best interests of the state.
When asked what he is doing about Maine’s heroin addiction problem, LePage said, “I have been asking the Legislature for five years now to give me more drug agents, more law enforcement people, more judges and more DAs [district attorneys] … to get the traffic curtailed.
“The problem in the state of Maine is that the Legislature, the 186 people whom you’ve elected, have turned their backs on heroin. They’re not putting money up for education, and they’re not putting money up for law enforcement.”
That prompted Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) to rise from his seat in the front row to challenge the governor’s assertion.
“We did actually increase money both for treatment and law enforcement in the current budget,” he said.
The governor angrily replied that he had asked for 22 new drug agents, but the Legislature only authorized two. “That’s chump change,” the governor said.
In response to the outburst, Hubbell decided not to continue and sat down.
In addition to more drug agents, the governor said he had asked for funding for more district attorneys and drug court judges.
Hubbell later noted that the two-year budget, which the Legislature passed over the governor’s veto, included funds for four new Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA) agents, two new judges, two new court clerks, 10 new assistant district attorneys, two new assistant attorney general drug prosecutors and funding for the Bangor and Kennebec County drug courts.
Hubbell said the budget also allows the MDEA to spend $200,000 in federal grant money to hire additional staff or invest in anti-drug efforts.
“I have no doubt that the governor cares deeply about the problem; he wants to fix it,” Hubbell said. “But we could do that. It’s one of those issues where there’s not necessarily an ideological division, so why play that game?”
More than 300 people attended the hour-long meeting in the high school auditorium, and after a half hour of opening remarks, the governor answered questions submitted by audience members.
Tom Walker of Mount Desert asked LePage, “Why is your brand of politics so confrontational?”
“Because, if you go along to get along, it doesn’t work, to make change,” the governor said. “I’m really not confrontational. I just say I have my own opinion about things, and I try to put good public policy.”
Later in the meeting, after answering other questions, the governor circled back to his manner of dealing with people who disagree with him and took another swipe at the Legislature.
“If I wanted to get popular, I’d have become a legislator,” he said. “If I want to be loved, I’ll get another dog.” “Unfortunately, we have a Legislature that has not been very good on the part of leadership. The problem is I’m not willing to join the good-old-boy Christmas club and give a lot of fat and earmarks around the state. I haven’t, and I won’t.”
The state Senate is controlled by LePage’s fellow Republicans; the House by Democrats.
Following the meeting, Hubbell said the governor’s characterization of how the Legislature functions “is not fact-based.”
“It really doesn’t fairly describe the process that I witness every day there, which is people struggling in good faith to figure out what the right thing to do is,” he said.
“What I think this governor’s fatal flaw is … if we were actually to sit down and talk regularly about how to solve problems, I think he would realize that the dynamic that [the governor describes] is neither inherent nor real.”
Mount Desert Selectman John Macauley asked the governor what impact the proposed national park in northern Maine would have on the state.
“Nothing,” the governor said, adding that the 150,000 acres in Aroostook County that some want to turn into a national park is not all contiguous and not all under the same ownership. He claimed that hunting and snowmobiling would be banned. While hunting is prohibited in most national parks, snowmobiling is allowed, including on more than 60 miles of routes in Acadia.
“The problem is, it’s all been cut over,” LePage said of land east of Baxter State Park. “So, it has no beauty. If you want some beauty in the northern Maine woods, go to Baxter State Park. You’ll see some beauty, and it’s properly managed.”
He suggested that most of the forest fires around the United States are in national parks and on other federal lands.
“If you look at how much deadwood is lying in [Acadia’s] forests versus Baxter State Park, this is much more vulnerable to fires than Baxter, considerably more,” the governor said. “I personally believe that all of the deadwood in this park should be picked up because … a dead tree is like a match; a dead tree hit by lightning is like an explosion.”
Referring to the fire that swept through a large part of Mount Desert Island, including Acadia, in 1947, he said, “If you look at [the forest] now, it’s not that far away again.”
Reached for comment about their wildfire management practices on Wednesday, officials at Acadia National Park passed along copies of their specific fire management policy as well as National Park Service policies.
“Acadia has a recent fire management plan that provides park-specific guidance,” park spokesman John Kelly said.
The policy notes that “Although dead and down wood is a source of fuel for a wildland fire, it is also an important part of a forest’s ecology.” Decaying wood releases nutrients into the soil and provides animal habitat.
Park fire crews regularly work to remove accumulated dead wood in high hazard areas. The fire management plan includes “strategies for preventing the accumulation of hazardous fuels in specific areas and for eliminating hazardous conditions that may have developed over time.”
Although in some larger parks out west, fires are allowed to burn as part of the natural ecosystem, Acadia’s plan calls for all fires, even naturally occurring ones, to be suppressed.
LePage began Tuesday’s town hall meeting by talking about a few issues that he sees as top priorities: eliminating the income tax, reducing energy costs, welfare reform and education and student loan debt.
He said that 10 states have no income tax, and they have some of the healthiest economies in the country. He said that eliminating the income tax would encourage business development, job creation and population growth.
“I think we lower the income tax for Maine people and increase the sales tax a little bit, and we get a little more out of all the out-of-staters who come visit in the summer. And they won’t mind, because Maine’s the most beautiful place to go in the summer.”
On the issue of welfare reform, LePage said members of the Legislature have asked him why he doesn’t care about the poor.
“I care more about the poor than anybody in the Legislature because I’ve been there; I lived it,” he said. “And poor people don’t look for handouts. They look for ways to be helped to be able to be self sufficient.”
He said the solution is education and training to give people the skills they need to get a job.
“Some of my opponents say throw money at it and let’s go to the cocktail party,” he said.
But just giving money to the poor doesn’t work, he said, “Because, once the money is spent, you’re right back to where you started.”
LePage said he had a plan, which the Legislature rejected, for reducing the sometimes crushing loan debts accrued by Maine’s college students. His proposal was to borrow $10 million and match it with money from the Finance Authority of Maine to give interest-free loans “to all the kids with student loans who are working in Maine or going to school in Maine.”
LePage said that is evidence of his true nature.
“People say I’m a bully. That’s because you’re reading the newspapers,” he said. “I’m really a nice guy.”