SALEM TOWNSHIP — Gov. Paul LePage visited businesses in Franklin County on Wednesday and shared his thoughts with residents at a town hall-style meeting in the evening.
Addressing approximately 100 residents at Mt. Abram High School, LePage expressed frustration with the recent Forbes Magazine review of the 50 states. In the magazine's Best States for Business and Careers survey, Maine was "dead last".
He said he wanted to know why.
"So we called them," he said.
The Forbes survey included a points system for each state's business costs, labor supply, regulatory environment, economic climate, growth prospects, quality of life, and population, and its gross state product.
Maine's government "made some good efforts and has done some good things," he said a magazine representative told him, but unless welfare and energy costs were reduced, the state would continue to "stay in the basement."
LePage also noted the importance of supporting residents who truly needed help but weeding out those who could work but wouldn't. He expressed frustration with those who move to Maine from other states, because "we're generous with our benefits."
He addressed accountability in schools that produce students who graduate with few skills and students who require tutoring to complete basic freshman college classes.
Maine has a high school dropout rate, he noted, but the state also hears from companies that have jobs available and can't find trained workers. Not every student wants to go to college, he said, but schools have pushed them in that direction.
LePage suggested the flow of incoming revenues could not offset the outflow of monies for energy and welfare.
"We have more of the citizens on MaineCare or Medicare than we have taxpayers paying into the system," he said.
There are many loopholes in the tax system, he suggested. More people spend six months and one day of the year in states with lower taxes, so the state loses that revenue. The state pays its workers only 82 percent of the salary those workers would receive in most other states for the same job.
The state's outstanding debts are daunting, he said.
"You can only not pay your bills for so long," he said.
Even when the state has knocked down part of its debt load, the recession hasn't offered many chances to make long-term gains.
"We owed $400 million to the hospitals in the state, and we've paid $282 million of that," he said. "Now we're back to owing $400 million again."
William Crandall, who works for the Western Maine Community Action Program, asked if the state could investigate the option to install pellets stoves in homes. Mount Abram high school, Crandall also noted, has a pellet boiler to heat the building. Why not provide incentives for municipalities and schools to switch to wood heat, he asked.
LePage said he planned to work with small banks, set revenues aside, and take funds from the Efficiency Main energy program to make alternative energy sources more available.