AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage swore, pounded a table and stormed out of a meeting with three independent House members last week, according to the lawmakers. The trio said they hoped to talk to the governor about alternate approaches to balancing the state budget. Instead, the lawmakers said the governor called them “idiots” and again railed against Maine’s public schools.
Rep. Joe Brooks of Winterport, a former Democrat, set up the meeting with LePage weeks after the governor refused to meet with the Legislature’s Democratic leaders. Last month, LePage called on House Speaker Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond to urge their party to stop dispatching a cameraman to film him at public events, but Eves and Alfond didn’t heed the call. The three still have not met.
Rep. Jeff Evangelos of Friendship and Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland also attended the meeting. The trio are the only members of the 151-member Maine House who aren’t caucusing with either the Republican or Democratic parties. One other independent, Rep. James Campbell of Newfield, is caucusing with House Democrats.
Chipman said the unenrolled members went into their meeting with LePage intent on discussing the governor’s post-Christmas $35.5 million spending curtailment order and his recently unveiled two-year budget proposal.
When Evangelos brought up concerns from municipal leaders in his midcoast district that the elimination of revenue sharing — designed to save the state nearly $200 million during the two-year budget cycle — could cause property taxes to spike hundreds of dollars for an average property owner, LePage grew irritated, Brooks, Chipman and Evangelos said Monday in separate telephone interviews.
He raised his hands over his head, then pounded the table, Brooks said.
“‘You guys, you’re idiots and you’re just as bad if not worse than those other guys,’” LePage said, according to Brooks. “I assumed that he was talking about the Democrats.”
“He went right through the roof when I asked him the question,” Evangelos said. “He flew up like a jack-in-the-box and ran out of the room and slammed the door.”
A LePage spokeswoman didn’t respond to a reporter’s requests for comment Monday.
Brooks, Chipman and Evangelos thought the meeting was over just a minute after it began, but LePage returned minutes later.
“When he came back in the room, he was hollering at us and swearing at us,” Evangelos said.
LePage then said, according to Evangelos, “You tell me where you’re going to find the $200 million and I’ll put [revenue sharing] back in.”
Evangelos said he suggested repealing a package of income tax cuts passed in LePage’s first budget that took effect at the start of the month, a move that LePage promised to veto.
The tax cuts remove about 70,000 low-income residents from the state income tax rolls and lower the top tax rate to 7.95 percent from 8.5 percent. The state will forgo about $342 million in individual income tax collections during the two years covered by the next budget as a result, LePage’s finance commissioner, Sawin Millett, has said.
Evangelos, Brooks and Chipman said they remained calm throughout the meeting and didn’t raise their voices in response to LePage.
“We were polite, respectful and diplomatic, but we got our concerns across,” Evangelos said. “He just didn’t want to hear it. He kept getting mad, losing his cool. He was swearing.”
“I was somewhat in shock. I have worked with every governor, for heaven’s sake, since Gov. [John] Reed,” said Brooks, who is serving his fourth term in the Legislature and worked for the Bangor Daily News before he was elected to the Legislature. “There’s no comparison to Gov. LePage.”
During the 35-minute meeting among the four men, Chipman suggested raising the state’s lodging tax — which is 7 percent, among the lowest levels in New England — to generate additional revenue. Chipman has filed legislation that would increase the lodging tax and direct the added revenue back to cities and towns and to the state’s tourism marketing budget.
“I would much rather look at ways to raise revenue, do it in a creative way,” Chipman said. “I think we could raise [the lodging tax] and come up with additional revenue, 95 percent of which would be paid by tourists. If we went up to the New England average, 10 percent, it wouldn’t keep anyone from coming here.”
During the meeting, the lawmakers said, LePage also voiced criticisms that Maine isn’t business-friendly and that businesses don’t want to locate in Maine because of the quality of the state’s workforce; that Maine schools aren’t preparing students for college-level work; and that Maine’s public schools employ too many superintendents. Too many of those superintendents, he added, are double dippers: They’re collecting retirement system pensions while earning a salary for working.
“I told him to stop saying these things. They aren’t true,” Evangelos said. “You can’t be marketing the state doing that.”
Evangelos also said he pointed out to LePage that Millett is collecting pensions from past state government and legislative service while working in LePage’s administration.
“I’m not asking you to fire the guy. He’s a smart guy,” Evangelos said. “But if you’re going to use this hot language, this double-dipper language, get your own house in order. He can’t be using this kind of language if he’s going to move this state forward.”
Brooks came out of the meeting with LePage without much hope that the Republican governor and the new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate will be able to work together in the coming months.
“He’s not open to these kinds of discussions, and I think it’s sad,” Brooks said. “It bewilders me to see the complexity of the budget, but it’s even more disturbing when you find out people aren’t talking to each other who are responsible for this huge document. We are not doing the service that the voters sent us down here to do.”