Gov. Paul LePage came to work in Waldo County, Thursday, Oct. 20, as part of his Capital for a Day program.

Accompanied by members of his cabinet, the governor started the day Belfast making stops at Mathews Brothers and Penobscot McCrum. He and his staff ate lunch at Darby’s Restaurant in Belfast, then headed to Sprague Energy and GAC Chemical in Searsport, and Gold Top Farm in Knox, where he talked to local farmers.

(Aside of) new potatoes

At Penobcot McCrum LePage sampled the potato company’s offerings, and toured the steamy catacombs of the waterfront processing plant. He was joined by Maine Commissioner of Labor Lt. Gen. Robert Winglass, Commissioner of Agriculture Walter Whitcomb, Senior Economic Policy Advisor John Butera, Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum and Economic Development Director Thomas Kittredge, and Maine Senator Michael Thibodeau.

The visit came shortly after an amendment to new nutrition guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s that would have limited the amount of starchy foods, including potatoes, that could be served in schools. The amendment was introduced by Sen. Susan Collins and Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. and co-sponsored by Sen. Olympia Snowe.

A headline in the Bangor Daily News, Oct. 18, described it as a vote for “unlimited potatoes” in school lunches, and the result left Penobscot McCrum President Jay McCrum feeling vindicated.

“It brought to light the real reflection of what potatoes are,” he said. “It’s how you process them.”

A buffet of the Penobscot McCrum’s products was spread over a long table nearby and McCrum pointed to the bowl of potato wedges that was the company’s latest offering. Sitting next to glistening potato skins peppered with bacon bits, the new potatoes lacked the shelf appeal of some of their counterparts, but they tasted good and according to McCrum, they have 30-percent of the total calories of fried potatoes.

“I’m thinking of calling them the McSpud.” It was a play on McCrum’s name, and also totally out of the question.

McCrum laughed. “Which is more important, McDonald’s or McCrum?” he said. A moment later his expression became more serious.

“That is a consideration,” he said.

Costs of unfilled jobs

The conversation among the Governor and company executives focused on employment and it’s relationship to welfare, and then welfare fraud.

LePage cited the large percentage of Maine residents who are on some form of public assistance — 330,000 on MaineCare according to Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew, who gave the figure during the town hall meeting later that day — and noted that workers in Maine make less than the national average in wages.

“We’ve gotten overly generous. It’s not that we’re not compassionate,” he said.

LePage said some industries are bringing in workers from Jamaica for jobs that Mainers could fill for but don’t, opting to stay on public assistance.

“We used to always hear about an incredible work ethic that Maine people have, but we’re hearing from businesses that that’s going away,” he said.

Ginny Rickards, human resources manager at Penobscot McCrum, told the governor that during routine plant shutdowns for maintenance the company requires its roughly 100 workers to use vacation time, but that during those periods — typically two weeks in August — employees can also collect unemployment benefits, giving what she called a “double hit” to the company.

LePage would bring up the topic at the town hall meeting that night, using a paper mill shutdown triggering unemployment eligibility as an example of the regulations he called “so anti-business, anti-work.”

“What’s wrong with that program?” he said. “They get two pays in a week if they shut the mill down for maintenance.”

The omission of Front Street Shipyard — located a stone’s throw from Penobscot McCrum — from the governor’s tour was notable given the degree to which the new development has been lauded as a business success story. Shipyard General Manager JB Turner said Thursday that he was not contacted by the governor’s office.

Commissioner of Agriculture Walter Whitcomb, who helped organize the Capital for a Day tour, said the itinerary Thursday comprised some businesses that had invited the governor, and others based on local recommendations or past visits.

Whitcomb, the only member of LePage’s cabinet from Waldo County, co-owns Springdale Jerseys, a 400-head dairy farm in Waldo. He has made several similar tours, he said, when he served in the state legislature under former governors Angus King and John McKernan.

McKernan started the Capital for a Day program in 1986.

Looking down toward the shipyard from outside the offices of Penobscot McCrum, Whitcomb said he had hoped to go down there but thought it was “not tourable yet.”

Education, business figure at forum

At a town hall-style meeting at the Performance Center at the Mount View School that evening, the governor and members of his cabinet hit on familiar themes from the administration’s agenda — business and education.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Patricia Aho and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen each pitched versions of limiting regulations as a way to energize the state. Bowen, who cited the passage of charter school legislation and creation of “innovation zones,” saw loosening regulations as necessary to give schools room to be innovative, while Aho lauded regulatory reforms that have made the DEP more “customer focused, more collaborative and much more efficient.”

Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt also used the term “customers” to describe constituents.

Around 150 people attended the town hall meeting Thursday night, and judging from reactions, many seemed to support the governor. On a half-dozen occasions, comments from the officials were met with applause, sometimes sustained.

Asked what the government can do to bring businesses to the state, LePage reviewed what he saw as the major issues when he took office, listing: healthcare, education, quality of workforce, energy and regulations.

LePage said the regulatory situation improved with the passage LD 1, which streamlined the process of getting permits and licenses.

“It’s not a matter of getting rid of [regulations]. It’s a matter of making a system where we can understand the problems better and get permitting and licensing through the system much quicker and eliminate delays.”

One of the major impediments to new businesses investing in the state, he said, are Maine’s high energy costs, which he attributed to government dictating a renewable energy standard.

“If the business climate is good and healthy in Maine, investors will invest, because they want to profit.”

“You see this beautiful building,” he said, referring to the two-year-old Mount View School. “We spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to build beautiful schools but we won’t pay our teachers. That’s disgraceful.”

For their part, teachers should be accredited because they’ve developed proficiency in a subject, possibly by working alongside a master, he said, rather than by getting teaching certificate.

LePage’s ideas around education seemed to be rooted in practical concerns relating to the high school dropout rate, and the lack of workers in Maine who can fill jobs that require more skill and specialized education.

He challenged the entrenched secondary school philosophy that assumes all students will go to college, and restated his commitment to supporting vocational training, or a compressed higher education starting in grades 11 and 12, shortening college to two years, like a pilot program in Fort Kent.

“We had one company tell us yesterday they were recruiting in Massachusetts for IT people because we don’t have them,” he said.

Education Commissioner Bowen stressed moving away from a “factory model” of education where children are grouped by age rather than ability. This would be a big culture change, he said, and technology could play a part.

“It’s about the kids,” he said, “[asking] ‘Where’s that kid?’ instead of trying to pound these kids into a system that was designed for adults.”

Though many attendants expressed concerns in questions posed to administration officials, few leveled direct criticism at the Governor and his staff. The notable exception came from a woman who questioned LePage’s move to Canada during the Vietnam War.

The woman, who identified herself only as Kate L. from Skowhegan, held up a picture of her son who was killed in the line of duty and accused LePage of evading the draft.

LePage cited his draft number and said he moved to Canada to marry his college sweetheart, whom he later divorced. He expressed his condolences to the woman, but defended his support of soldiers in past situations. Labor Commissioner Winglass, a retired lieutenant general, later jumped to LePage’s defense.

“This governor is the right governor if you’re a veteran. That’s a truism,” he said.

The woman called the governor a “phony.”

When LePage’s press secretary and event moderator, Adrienne Bennett, reminded audience members to keep their comments respectful, the woman shot back.

“My son deserves respect, not him,” she said, gesturing to LePage, then walking out of the auditorium.

When the panel of administration officials was asked:

• what the administration is doing about Medicaid fraud, Mayhew said the department has created a task force on preventing fraud.

• about potential changes to the state’s Essential Programs and Services formula that determines the state’s share of school funding, LePage said the problem was the high cost of education, per pupil.

• why parents don’t have a choice among public schools, LePage said he believes the law is not in the interest of children but of unions. He cited the creation of charter schools as a first step toward more school choice.

• about his biggest accomplishment to date and biggest challenge in the future, LePage said, “changing the culture in Augusta,” and the state’s financial situation, respectively.

• about state plans to give state roads to municipalities. Without $30-40 million to compensate municipalities for road improvements, Bernhardt said, that is not a move that the state plans to make at this time.

• by the parent of an adult with Down syndrome, what the administration will do about long waiting lists for supported employment, Mayhew called the waiting lists “a crime,” and said the administration is committed to finding money to reduce wait lists. “We haven’t done a good job in that area,” she said.

• by a farmer about land trusts and nonprofits taking property out of municipal tax bases, LePage said those entities have a right to exist and the same happens with areas designated as “tree growth.” The governor said his staff is looking at the issue broadly and that he doesn’t believe farmland should be taxed at its current rate.

• by a 60-year-old middle school teacher if there would be money for his retirement, LePage said his administration inherited a $4.1 billion shortfall in the pension fund but are dealing with it, rather than “kicking it down the street.”

• why the state requires vocational training for trades instead of the old apprenticeship system, Winglass said the Department of Labor has an apprenticeship program. “It’s one of the ideas that has any money,” he said, drawing some laughter from the crowd.