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LePage says in a debate that Mills was ‘fortunate’ COVID hit because of the influx of federal funds

chamber commerce debate.jpg
Steve Mistler
Maine Public
Former Gov. Paul LePage, left, and Gov. Janet Mills, right, participate in a Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce debate at the Holiday Inn in Portland on Thursday Oct. 6, 2022.

Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and former Republican Gov. Paul LePage tussled over their stewardship of state finances Thursday during a forum hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. LePage at one point said Mills was fortunate that the pandemic hit because it came with federal dollars for the state.

The hour-long debate focused exclusively on business and economic issues and it marked the second time that LePage and Mills have faced off this week.

LePage kicked off the debate in Portland by describing the host city as an unsafe "concrete jungle" and a state economy in ruins.

It contrasted sharply with Mills' portrayal, which focused on the state's nearly $900 million in reserve funding and two nonpartisan reports suggesting state government could withstand a significant loss in revenue in a moderate recession, and more than a year if a severe recession hits.

"It projects for the first time in 20 years Maine has the funds to pay its bills and keep on top of its bills. Revenues and expenses are aligned," she said. "That's pretty good governing, I think. It's good management."

But LePage, who billed himself as a turnaround specialist when he rose to power in 2010 amid a painful economic recession, assailed the state's finances as propped up by federal pandemic relief aid.

Without that money, he asserted, the state would be in deep financial trouble because of Mills' leadership.

"This governor has been very, very fortunate that COVID came because with COVID came $15 billion — or nearly $15 billion — from Uncle Joe. And that's where the surplus comes from," he said.

"Uncle Joe" is a derisive term LePage often uses to describe President Joe Biden.

He went on to say that Mills is using federal money to fix Maine's problems instead of coming up with ideas, an assertion Mills contested by noting her administration had an economic plan ready before the pandemic hit.

Much of the federal aid LePage referred to came in two tranches, first by way of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act approved by Democrats and Republicans and signed by former President Donald Trump; the other via $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by Biden and approved exclusively by Democrats in Congress.

While Mills and LePage exchanged barbs during Thursday's debate, it was less combative than the one hosted by Maine Public, the Portland Press Herald and the Lewiston Sun Journal earlier this week.

Independent Sam Hunkler also participated in the earlier debate, but not the one held Thursday.