AUBURN — The state’s most visible bastion of conservative thought is poised to significantly up its game for 2016, its executive director told a gathering of about 20 people at a luncheon Wednesday at the Hilton Garden Inn.

“The first thing we can acknowledge and probably talk about very quickly is what a big year 2016 is going to be,” said Matt Gagnon, executive director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on free-market principles and a conservative, small-government policy agenda.

During the 90-minute presentation, Gagnon outlined a detailed plan, including a new wave of investigative reports from the center’s media arm, the Maine Wire, that will tackle conservative issues by category and theme in a series of reports meant to start in January.

Topping the list for the center is the topic of poverty in Maine, what causes it and how to fix it, Gagnon said.

“Poverty is a scary word to conservatives,” Gagnon said. “And the reason it’s a scary word to conservatives is because the left has completely co-opted it. They own this term; we don’t even talk about it. We talk about business tax cuts and what the income tax does to retirees and people leaving the state, and all the things the economy does and creating jobs.”

Gagnon said he was glad conservatives talked about those things because they are important issues, but when it comes to offering solutions to poverty — Maine remains one of the poorest states in the nation — conservatives steer away from the topic.

“We need to retake that, and that means talking about what causes (poverty),” Gagnon said, “how the government responds to it, how the government fails to respond to it and what the government could do and, quite frankly, not do to make the situation better.”

Gagnon said the center would spend the next three months exploring the issue, focusing on everything from government regulations and taxes to the high cost of health care, all of which contribute to Maine people having less money.

“These things need to be confronted head-on,” Gagnon said. “We have to offer solutions that solve the problem of poverty if we want to be able to speak to the voters of Maine because this is a poor state.”

He said voters will only pick conservative candidates or support conservative ideas if they believe in their solutions. “They have to believe that we have the solutions to the problems that affect their lives, and (poverty) is the biggest one.”

The center is also poised to examine Maine’s frequently noted poor business climate and state government, and reframe the conversation about education in terms of “building the future.”

Among other details that Gagnon unveiled was a plan the center has to release its “Guide to Red Tape in Maine,” which will likely detail the 100 most onerous government regulations that are holding back business growth and the economy.

Gagnon said the guide was being informed by ongoing meetings with industry associations, business leaders and chambers of commerce.

Gagnon also took the time to speak about breaking what conservatives view as a liberal stranglehold on state government and the mainstream press in Maine.

Gagnon said the state’s largest daily newspapers, including the Sun Journal, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News practice “yellow journalism,” a phrase used to denote sensationalism and exaggeration. He listed them along with wealthy liberal donors, activists groups — especially the Lewiston-based Maine People’s Alliance — “statist politicians” and unions as being cogs of “the liberal machine in Maine.”

Gagnon said deconstructing that machine would be a difficult job but one that could be achieved in Maine. The center’s plan to do that included expanding its reach by building its own infrastructure of grass-roots activists, similar to the way the Maine People’s Alliance has been able to grow its organization on the left.

He said that would involve more direct recruitment of activists, coordination with other groups, a growing statewide presence and the creation of new and engaging events for conservative-minded citizens.

Gagnon also detailed a plan to reach out to younger citizens in colleges and high schools as a way to build depth into Maine’s conservative movement.

Mike Tipping, a spokesman for the Maine People’s Alliance, said he was heartened to hear Gagnon and other conservatives acknowledge the issue of poverty. Tipping said it was also an acknowledgement that conservative policies had, so far, only led to deeper poverty in Maine.

“I feel like that’s a rather stunning admission, that even after having been in power for several years now, Republicans and conservatives have no answer to poverty,” Tipping said. “It’s kind of an admission that their policies around poverty and welfare have really failed.”

Tipping said just by looking at the number of poor in Maine who had lost financial support, food and health care benefits under the administration of Republican Gov. Paul LePage and a state Legislature that has seen Republican majorities alternating between the House and Senate over the past eight years, it’s clear the poor are worse off than they’ve been in decades.

“Perhaps in that conversation they intend to have over the next three months one thing they should consider is raising the minimum wage,” Tipping said.

That’s an unlikely prospect. Gagnon told his audience the statewide referendum drive, supported by the Maine People’s Alliance, that would push the minimum wage from $7.50 to $12 an hour is one of the many issues conservatives would fight against in 2016.

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