NEWRY — Gov. Paul LePage used a state tourism conference’s typically light-and-happy awards ceremony as a political platform Tuesday, calling for everyone in the room to pass the word that current ballot initiatives — including raising the minimum wage — will have a catastrophic effect on the state.
“(Tourism is) a great industry; it’s a fun industry, but it’s being attacked,” LePage said. “It’s being attacked by people that don’t like Maine. I hate to call them Bernie Sanders supporters, but …” He trailed off before commenting on the American Dream and how “nowadays, earning money’s a bad thing.”
About 400 people attended the awards ceremony and luncheon at the Maine Governor’s Conference on Tourism at Sunday River in Newry. The governor’s speech was largely met with silence, interspersed at times with nervous laughter and, at the end, polite applause.
During his 18-minute noontime speech, LePage repeatedly lamented negative perceptions of high-earners.
“I never thought I would live in a state where earning a decent living is a bad thing,” he said.
Immediately after, he railed against a November ballot initiative that asks voters to pay workers more.
The initiative, backed by the Maine People’s Alliance and labor unions, seeks to raise the minimum wage in Maine to $12 an hour by 2020. LePage said raising the minimum wage will cost too much and will hurt businesses, tourism, Mainers on fixed incomes, in-home nursing and young people.
“This is scary stuff,” he said.
He called raising the minimum wage “a scam on the Maine people,” saying Maine unions want to see an increase because their workers’ contracted salaries are tied to minimum wage levels.
“This is to get more money out of your pocket and give it to those who are not willing to keep their nose clean, work hard and achieve,” he said. “They just want to sit back and … get more and more of your money.”
He also railed against the high cost but poor results of public education in Maine, high taxes that send Mainers fleeing to Florida, high energy costs, the Maine People’s Alliance, and that too few Mainers can afford to buy land on the coast or in other coveted areas.
LePage told the crowd he has lived the American Dream.
“I know what it is to be on the streets of Lewiston, Maine, with no place to go, not knowing if it’s going to be a cold night or a warm night,” he said. “I know what it is to buy five cans of cat food because a can of tuna is 59 cents and five cans of cat food are a dollar. That’s five meals. And then we sit here and we have people who succeed and get out of the poverty and then we have people that are trying to drive us back in because they don’t want us to succeed.”
He urged audience members to pass on his message.
“Each and every one of you needs to tell 10 people and ask those 10 people to tell 10 people,” he said.
LePage acknowledged that his speech was unusual for the annual tourism awards ceremony and luncheon.
“I know you think that, well, this is a happy occasion,” he said, adding, “You have to listen to a little bit of reality about where we’re headed.”
Staff writer Kathryn Skelton contributed to this report.