FREEPORT — Gov. Paul LePage’s latest town hall forum Tuesday night included exchanges between LePage and Freeport state Rep. Sara Gideon, and several constituents who angrily left the event.

LePage opened the meeting at the Freeport Community Library as he has prior forums in other communities, talking for several minutes about ways to reduce the income tax, cut welfare and energy costs, and the problems of student debt and heroin addiction. He then moved on to a question-and-answer session with the overflow crowd of more than 100 people.

Gideon, a Freeport Democrat and the assistant House majority leader, persisted in asking a question despite being rebuffed by LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett. Some in the crowd echoed Bennett’s statement that Gideon should instead let her constituents speak, but LePage agreed to hear the question.

Gideon said while she disagrees with many of LePage’s thoughts and ideas, she wants to work with him on a plan to create more jobs in Maine.

“What can we do together to actually do something about jobs, so that we’re not arguing about people on welfare or people who need help moving out of poverty?” she said.

LePage said Gideon should not rely on anecdotal information about issues and should work with her “bosses” in Augusta and have them work with him. Gideon noted that Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond are her peers, not her superiors.

That prompted LePage to tell Gideon if she ever becomes speaker of the House, “which I hope not,” she shouldn’t force others to vote the way she wants them to. He clarified that he hopes no Democratic becomes House speaker, not just Gideon.

LePage’s comment that asylum seekers are “the biggest problem in our state” elicited heckles from some members of the audience. Several people stood up and left the meeting, while shouting “shame on you,” “go to some other town,” and “hit the road.”

James Roux, who has recently been accused of harassing the Freeport Flag Ladies, was among those who were upset by LePage’s comments.

“They’re fleeing war-torn countries,” Roux said to LePage before leaving the meeting. “All they want is help.”

LePage responded to Roux that asylum seekers are different from refugees and that they’re coming from other states, not other countries. Roux argued, but was cut off by Bennett, who was asking everyone to settle down.

Earlier in the evening during his opening remarks, LePage said drug dealers are also a major problem in Maine.

“I believe people selling heroin in this state are murderers,” he said.

LePage emphasized that he believes dealers are the problem, not addicts, and that tougher laws need to be made to punish dealers.

He also spent the first part of the forum discussing his “vision” for the state and the issues that are “preventing Maine from going from poverty to prosperity.”

LePage said Maine is the highest taxed state in the country and has a low per-capita income compared to other states. He said Maine is also the number one state for second home ownership and that a problem is created by people who live in Maine for only half the year because they don’t pay income tax in the state. The burden then falls to full-time residents, he said.

“Half the population pays $1 billion in income tax,” LePage said.

The governor said he wants to look at how income tax can be lowered. He also said the tourism industry should be better utilized and that tourists should pay a higher sales tax.

LePage also discussed a desire to attract younger people to Maine so more jobs can be filled and the average age in the state, 44 years old, can be lowered. He said student debt needs to be addressed as well, and that companies should assist employees in paying off debt.

He also discussed welfare reform, saying all able-bodied people should have to work and electronic benefit transfer funds should be better tracked.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Public health officials dispute LePage’s diagnosis

Public health experts say they haven’t seen any data linking asylum seekers to the spread of infectious diseases in Maine.

“I don’t think the governor has a really good grasp of public health,” said Megan Hannan, executive director of the Frannie Peabody Center in Portland, which treats people with HIV/AIDS.

Gov. Paul LePage said asylum seekers differ from refugees in that they overstay their visas and do not receive a medical assessment.

“And what happens is you get hepatitis C, tuberculosis, AIDS, HIV, the ‘ziki fly,’ (sic) all these types of other foreign diseases that find a way to our land,” he said.

LePage has strongly opposed providing welfare benefits for asylum seekers and has been holding “town hall” forums around the state to discuss his agenda.

LePage has a history of attacking asylum seekers, said Alain Jean Claude Nahimana, coordinator of the Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition,

“He’s blaming immigrants and minorities in general for anything that happens in the state of Maine that he is not able to handle,” said Nahimana, a former asylum seeker from Burundi. “The governor’s remarks seem to be yet another attempt to use fear mongering to pit one group of Mainers against another.”

Since 2010, the number of cases of acute hepatitis in Maine jumped from 2 in 2010 to 31 in 2014, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The state’s HIV infection rate has remained flat over the past decade.

The rise in hepatitis C cases is due to an increase in intravenous drug use, said Hannan. She said some immigrants, primarily from Africa, have HIV and tuberculosis, but there is no evidence they’re spreading the disease. She said there are no known cases of the Zika virus in Maine.

In 2014, LePage sought to prevent nurse Kaci Hickox from entering public places after she returned home to Maine after treating people with Ebola in Sierra Leone. She had no symptoms of the virus.

— The Associated Press


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