Governor enraged during meeting with local legislatorsLePage reveals 'end-game' for biennial budget, will veto revenue-raising bills
A little over a minute into a meeting between a local legislator and Gov. Paul LePage, conversation escalated. The governor, incensed by concerns about his budget, brought his fists down on the table, pointed at legislators and yelled: "You came here to tell me this sh*t?"
"There was so much anger and immaturity in his [LePage's] reaction," said Independent Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos.
Evangelos, of Friendship, along with two fellow Independent legislators — Joseph Brooks of Winterport and Benjamin Chipman of Portland — met with LePage Jan. 15 to introduce themselves and discuss the effects of the budget on their constituents.
Evangelos said he told the governor that shifting financial burdens onto municipalities and school districts — results of the slashed municipal revenue sharing, curtailment order and retirement share allotted to districts — will raise the average property owner's share by $500 in his district.
This increase could jeopardize citizens' ability to pay, he said.
According to Brooks, LePage then told legislators, "You are worse than them." Brooks assumed LePage was referring to the Democrats.
State Democrats have not yet met with LePage.
"It's a dramatic, historic shift to the regressive property tax and away from progressive taxes," said Evangelos. "The message that there were no tax increases to the budget isn't true."
The shift affects the elderly on a fixed income and low-income wage earners the most, Evangelos said, adding, "He's playing the towns for suckers."
Evangelos said LePage's deputy chief of staff, Kathleen Newman, bowed her face and shook her head when LePage left the cabinet room in a huff and slammed the door.
Evangelos reported that he said to her, "When people can't come in here and relay to the governor impacts of his strategies that affect our people, you've got a real problem."
Evangelos and his colleagues, "never flinched and never lost our tempers. We refused to be intimidated," he said.
LePage came back to the meeting a few minutes later, Evangelos reported, and said he would put $200 million back into the budget if the three representatives told him where the money would come from.
Evangelos said alternatives include reversing the tax cuts for the wealthiest in the state, and a variety of proposals — from both parties — recommend tweaking the income tax structure to raise revenue.
"It's the same trickle down economics, and all we get is crumbs because it's not working," Evangelos said of the budget proposal, adding the loss of revenue from the sales and income taxes proves it.
According to Evangelos, LePage said he would veto anything that came to his desk that would raise revenue.
Evangelos said Chipman then suggested that the lodging and tourist taxes are the lowest in New England, potentially an area that could be targeted to raise revenue to offset property tax costs. LePage countered that it would impact competitiveness.
When Evangelos asked LePage why he was proposing the tax shift, he said LePage responded by saying the state's school systems are a disaster and called superintendents "liars and double-dippers."
"He has declared war on our schools," Evangelos said.
Evangelos said LePage told him that he wanted one superintendent for each county, modeled after Florida, using the burden on local property taxpayers to force the consolidation.
Evangelos pointed out that Sawin Millet, a retired superintendent, now works for the LePage administration as the commissioner of the Department of Administrative and Financial Services. "The irony is not lost on the people that somebody in your own cabinet is a 'double-dipper'," he said.
LePage "went ballistic again" according to Evangelos, and told the three legislators, "I'll fire him [Millett] right now."
"He's a smart guy [Millett] and I wasn't criticizing him, just pointing out the inconsistency," Evangelos said.
"He [LePage] is trying to rile up property taxpayers to turn against their towns and schools — end-game number one — and to develop a movement to consolidate superintendents," said Evangelos.
According to Evangelos, LePage then began to count off Maine as last in education, business-friendly climate, and labeling Maine kids and workers as "not smart." LePage added that when Puerto Rico becomes a state, Maine will fall behind even more.
Evangelos said he told the governor he was there to represent his communities and that what he was saying about Maine's position as an inferior state was untrue. "We may not be perfect, but we're not in last place," he said.
Brooks said he is proud of his district — SAD 22 — because of their comparatively low drop-out rate, a strong technical school and higher education placement statistics.
Brooks said LePage called them "idiots" and "ignorant" — which was offensive to the legislators, adding that the governor used terms loosely.
Despite the meeting, scheduled to introduce the legislators to the governor, no common ground was reached.
LePage said he would veto any changes to the budget, even as some are coming from Republicans, including a tax hike on earners making $250,000 or more.
"This budget is a political document, not a financial document," Evangelos said. " He is spoiling for a fight."
Brooks said he did not see cooperation and a willingness to be patient and work through the budget to find solutions from the governor. "It was a significant meeting, and such a horrible tone for where we are going in an effort to solve problems," he said.
Kathleen Newman, LePage's deputy chief of staff, could not be reached for comment.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.