AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage pointed to his own homeless youth to underscore his devotion to educational issues in his State of the State address Tuesday night, while promising not to raise taxes and calling for trimming energy costs and plugging a loophole that allows domestic abusers to keep their guns.
"Finding my next meal and a warm spot to sleep was my goal" as an impoverished youth in Lewiston, LePage said. But he said the hardship he endured taught him that education was crucial if he was ever going to climb out of poverty.
In a speech lasting more than an hour to the full Legislature and a radio and television audience, LePage proposed more education options for all students — not just the wealthy — but offered few specifics about how he planned to expand school choice.
"We must fund schools that best fit the student's needs," LePage said.
The governor, who championed a bill last session that now allows charter schools in Maine, asked a student he said has benefited from expanded choice to stand and be recognized during his speech. Seventeen-year-old Alexander West is part of the inaugural class at Maine's first charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences.
LePage said he wants to hold schools accountable for how well they are educating students and directed the state Education Department to come up with a way to grade each school so students, parents and communities will understand if their schools are good, average or failing.
LePage also proposed, as he did last session, laws to allow more cheap Canadian hydropower in the state. He also said he wants fewer regulations for natural gas infrastructure to lower Mainers' energy bills and repay hospitals $484 million in Medicaid debts.
"Hardworking Maine families have two choices, pay their bills or face the debt collector," said LePage. "It is embarrassing to work for a government that does not pay its bills."
LePage also pushed hard for tougher policies related to domestic abuse, an issue important to him because he and his mother were victims of abuse. He promised to sign an executive order on Wednesday creating a task force to look into ways to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, saying are problems with enforcement of protection from abuse orders requiring people to surrender their firearms.
"As a youth, domestic violence hit close to home for me. I wasn't a spouse, I was a child," said LePage. "It's a heinous crime and we men need to stand up and shout loud and clear we are going to protect our women and children."
LePage, who frequently digressed from his written text, listed accomplishments he and the Republican-majority Legislature made during the 2011-12 session, including lowering taxes for two-thirds of Maine taxpayers, eliminating $1.7 billion of state pension system shortfall and repaying $248 million of the state Medicaid debt to hospitals.
But LePage faces a far different political climate this year after Democrats captured control of both chambers in November. His proposals will require at least some measure of bipartisan support in order to be enacted and relations with Democratic leaders have been cool so far. He did meet Monday with Democratic leaders to discuss the year's agenda, in a meeting attendees said went well.
LePage warned that there are some efforts to undo some of the tax cuts, but a Democratic leader said he knows of no such effort in his party.
"I'm unfamiliar with any efforts to repeal those tax cuts," said Rep. Jeff McCabe of Skowhegan, the assistant House majority leader.
McCabe and Senate Majority Leader Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, told Maine Public Broadcasting Network the governor had identified a lot of issues their party also consider important, including repaying the hospitals.
But Goodall said LePage isn't offering enough help for middle class taxpayers, saying the governor's budget calls for property tax increases that aren't so family friendly.
"That's a real problem for us," Goodall said.
A Republican leader said LePage spoke passionately for Maine children and families.
"Our policies must, above all else, ensure that Mainers have bigger paychecks, lower bills, and our children have a brighter future right here in the state that we love," said House GOP leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport.
Parts of the speech had been released hours early through Twitter, making LePage the first Maine governor to use social media to draw attention to a State of the State speech.