The governor’s office says a paper’s gag about a bridge went too far.

Harold Hall of Hebron admits he doesn’t have much faith in state government.

So when a friend from Boothbay mentioned Thursday morning that the state would charge a $5.75 toll to cross the Sagadahoc Bridge, he wasn’t surprised.

He was angry.

“I got so excited, I didn’t think very far ahead,” Hall said. His friend had read it on the front page of Thursday’s edition of the Bath Coastal Journal and Hall couldn’t believe there was no mention of it in his local Sun Journal.

So he began working the phones, calling the Sun Journal and WCSH-TV to sound the alarm. Then he called a friend in Woolwich to see what he thought.

“He’s a little more refined then I am, and he just asked me if I knew what day it was,” said Hall.

He had become one of hundreds of victims of the weekly paper’s April Fools’ prank.

Coastal Journal Editor Dave Swearingen said Thursday’s edition was a rarity. The weekly almost never comes out on April 1, and the staff couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

According to the story, which carried Swearingen’s byline, the state would start charging a $5.75 toll to westbound motorists using the bridge but would give a discount to out-of-state drivers.

Toll collections would bring in $26 million a year, the story said, quoting an aide to the governor as saying the revenue would keep Medicaid running, provide a laptop computer to every parent and solve myriad social problems.

“I’d never written this kind of story before, so I looked at it when I was finished and tried to decide if I needed to include a disclaimer,” Swearingen said.

He opted to go without a disclaimer, favoring more subtle puns and other nonsense – calling the governor “Johnny” Baldacci and quoting a dog, for example – to clue in readers.

Calls started coming in Wednesday night when the first editions began hitting dinner tables.

“In many cases, the wife was calling in saying that her husband was sitting at the table about ready to have a stroke over this,” Swearingen said.

Most callers just wanted to make sure it was a joke. Some were amused; others were angry.

Lee Umphrey, communications director for Gov. John Baldacci, didn’t find it funny at all.

“I told the editor that rather than joke about the budget situation, why not say that the governor and his staff are all getting toupees or driving electric cars?” Umphrey said. “Just something with a little humor.”

The governor’s office had fielded several angry calls, mostly from elderly folks and people on fixed incomes. He also received angry e-mails from one Maine newspaper and a radio station.

“It’s not the number of calls we recieved, but the pitch of the calls,” Umphrey said. “I don’t think the story took into account that people in Maine are having a tough time, and we’re having to make tough budget choices.”


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