SOUTH PARIS — Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday that funding for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network is a form of corporate welfare that the state can no longer afford.

During a town hall meeting in Oxford County, LePage was asked by an audience member why he’s proposing to eliminate the $1.7 million the state is scheduled to give the network starting July 1.

“Why should I pay welfare to a company?” he said. “It’s that simple. I need that money to pay welfare. I need the (money) to make sure some elderly don’t freeze. Quite frankly ma’am, I think that’s more important.”

The cut to MPBN is part of the governor’s newest supplemental budget. The nearly $38 million budget will be considered by lawmakers in the coming weeks, following public hearings that begin Tuesday.

LePage and members of his cabinet answered a variety of questions Thursday from a crowd of more than 200 at the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School auditorium.

Several audience members asked about welfare benefits and reports of fraud, and why more inmates don’t work on road projects. The governor, with five Cabinet members at his side, said he wants to continue welfare reform by cracking down on people who get rid of their assets so they can qualify for Medicaid funding.

He said he was aware of two examples where Mainers had gotten rid of hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets just before they moved in to a nursing home. The result was that taxpayers are now footing the bill, he said.

“Is it unethical? Yes,” he said. “Is it illegal? Not yet. We’re working on it.”

It was LePage’s 14th Capitol for a Day town hall meeting, a monthly venture outside Augusta modeled on a program by former Republican Gov. John McKernan. The crowd seemed mostly supportive, clapping and complimenting him before they asked questions, although at least 20 people holding protest signs greeted the governor outside the school.

During a discussion of economic development, LePage said he hopes an east-west highway is built across the state to help link the Canadian provinces of Quebec to the west and New Brunswick to the east.

Earlier this week, the state Senate gave initial approval to a bill that allows the Department of Transportation to pay for a study of a new privately funded toll highway. The study is estimated to cost $300,000.

When asked about wind power, the governor said his priority is lowering energy costs in Maine, regardless of the source. As it is now, he said wind power is too costly, and needs government money, so he’s looking for other options.

And on the day when candidates for the Legislature filed their papers to run for office, LePage said the next election will determine the course of the state for years to come. Republicans now control the House and Senate.

“If we want to be a welfare state, we’ll have that opportunity in November,” he said. “If we want to revive the American dream, we can do that in November.”

In response to a question from the audience, LePage said he favors tougher penalties for drunk drivers — and he used it as an opportunity to poke fun at a rumor that he had been recently pulled over for drunk driving.

He started by saying that he hasn’t driven himself anywhere since the day before he was inaugurated as governor in January 2011. Then he made light of the rumor by telling a wild story.

“Let met tell you what really happened,” he said. “I got my security, I handcuffed him, threw him in the back of the car, we were going down (Interstate) 95 at 100 miles an hour, I swerved to avoid Bigfoot and I ran into Elvis Presley,” he said, drawing laughs and applause from the audience. “I have two witnesses. The Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.”

Susan Cover — 620-7015

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