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Behind in the polls, LePage ratchets up attacks on Mills during second TV debate

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Troy R. Bennett
/
BDN
PORTLAND, MAINE — 10/24/22 -- Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage spar in a televisied debate presented Monday night, Oct. 24, 2022, by the BDN and CBS13 in Portland.

Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage sparred over inflation, energy prices and abortion on Monday night during the second of four televised debates in Maine’s hotly contested gubernatorial race.

On the issue of inflation, which consistently ranks as the top concern for voters nationwide, Mills pointed out that she worked with state lawmakers from both parties to return more than half of a budget surplus to most Maine taxpayers in the form of $850 inflation relief checks. Speaking during a debate co-hosted by WGME/CBS 13 and the Bangor Daily News, Mills also pledged to continue working with lawmakers when the new Legislature convenes in December to work on emergency legislation to help people pay for heating oil.

LePage responded by saying that he would have set aside $250 million to help people pay for heating oil and that the best way to lower inflation is to reduce the income tax. And he called the $850 relief checks “a gimmick.”

“This governor spends money like a drunken sailor,” LePage said. “The only difference between Janet Mills and a drunken sailor is a drunken sailor spends his own money."

Mills responded by saying she hears from people regularly who are thankful for the checks to help them pay heating costs, grocery bills or other expenses.

"It's unbelievable to suggest that giving people money to help fight inflation, which is one of the best inflation relief measures in the country, is somehow a gimmick,” Mills said. “The people know better.”

Mills has held a double-digit lead over LePage in several recent polls, although some observers still expect this to be a tight race. But LePage appeared to be on the offensive for much of the debate. The third candidate on the ballot, independent Sam Hunkler, was not invited to participate in Monday’s debate because he did not meet the pre-established criteria of receiving at least 5% in at least one independent survey.

Energy costs

Mainers are also paying higher electricity and energy costs. Mills questioned LePage’s support for oil exploration off the New England coast while he was governor. He responded by saying that he will “go wherever the oil is" to lower energy prices and promised to walk back renewable energy policies ushered in Mills.

“Solar is very, very expensive,” LePage said. “In fact, we need to repeal net metering, we need to repeal expedited permitting on solar and wind, and we have to make sure that electric cars pay their fair share of road use."

Mills responded by saying that rising natural gas prices, not solar policies, are responsible for pushing up electricity rates across New England. The Democrat said that, if re-elected, she will continue to work to reduce Maine's reliance on fossil fuels. And she reiterated her opposition to increasing gas taxes, seeking to rebuff nonstop attack ads from the LePage campaign and its Republican allies trying to tie Mills to a carbon tax bill in the Legislature that died in committee and that Mills opposed.

“We’ve got to look for alternative heating sources and alternative energy sources,” Mills said. “We can’t be dependent on the big oil companies any longer. We’ve got to diversify our energy sources.”

The two also clashed over the relicensing of a Kennebec River dam that Sappi North America insists is critical to the continued operation of its Skowhegan paper mill, which has 750 jobs. While LePage accused Mills of putting those jobs at risk, the incumbent repeated that she would not allow the mill to close and called on the dam’s owner, energy giant Brookfield Renewable USA, to work with the state and federal agencies on a better plan to improve fish passage.

Opioid crisis

Maine is poised to set another grim record on drug overdoses this year. The two contenders each accused the other of not doing enough to address the opioid crisis.

Mills criticized LePage for opposing wider distribution of the overdose reversal drug Narcan during his time in office, noting that her administration's distribution of hundreds of thousands of doses likely saved many more lives. LePage, meanwhile, repeated a variation on his controversial contention that Narcan without follow-up drug treatment merely extends lives and encourages further drug abuse.

"I don't have a problem if you give Narcan and you go into treatment, I'm fine,” LePage said. “But when you start giving Narcan five, six, seven times, it's false security and it's only good 'til the next overdose."

"It's another chance at life,” retorted Mills, who as attorney general went around LePage to distribute Narcan doses through her office.

Abortion

Abortion has also been a top issue among many voters – particularly Democrats – ever since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling that protected access to abortion at the federal level.

Mills is a staunch advocate for protecting access to abortion and has vowed to veto any additional measures that seek to undo Maine’s nearly 30-year-old law guaranteeing that access. LePage is anti-abortion but has said he would not seek to change that 1993 state law – a position he reiterated on Monday by calling the law “a good compromise.”

LePage has previously said that he opposes taxpayer-funded abortions – and he repeated that statement again on Monday. But moments later, he appeared to contradict himself by suggesting that he does not oppose Maine’s current law requiring the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, to pay for the procedure.

“If they qualify for Medicaid and their doctor does the abortion, that is fine,” LePage said. “I’m talking about the state taking a law and making abortion for everyone paid for by the state, like we pay for education.”

Mills worked with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to require all insurance providers in Maine – including MaineCare – to pay for abortions and other reproductive health. While federal law prohibits federal dollars from being used for abortions, states can use state taxpayer dollars to cover the procedure.

Pressed again on the issue by Bangor Daily News political editor Michael Shepherd, LePage said, “If they qualify for Medicaid, I’m fine.”

LePage has previously struggled to elucidate his position on abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision, including during a Maine Public/Portland Press Herald debate .

Mills responded by pointing out that LePage participated in annual anti-abortion rallies while he was governor. She also continued to suggest that LePage and other Republicans should not be trusted despite their assurances that they will not seek to change Maine’s law protecting women’s access to abortion.

“The last man I heard say those kinds of words was a guy named Brett Kavanaugh, who told the U.S. Senate and our own Sen. Collins that he would respect precedent, that he would never change precedent,” Mills said. “As soon as he got on the U.S. Supreme Court, he voted overwhelmingly to overturn Roe v. Wade. That’s where we stand.”