Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage debate at CBS 13's Portland studio on Monday, Oct. 24, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — A Monday debate featured false claims on drugs, education and economic issues from former Gov. Paul LePage and a bit of dated spin from Gov. Janet Mills.

The event hosted by CBS 13 and the Bangor Daily News was the first TV debate with the two party candidates going head-to-head alone. Independent Sam Hunkler, a Beals doctor, did not clear the required polling threshold to participate in the debate.

Here are the four claims that deserve attention.

LePage: “Under [Mills’] administration, you can have nearly 2,000 doses — 2,000 doses — of fentanyl, and that’s considered personal use. It’s not a felony. It’s been decriminalized.”

Absolutely not. LePage has only done the math correctly here. The rest is a distortion of a Democratic law that Mills allowed to pass without signing it last year.

It made it easier for those caught with more than 2 grams of fentanyl, the deadly opioid fueling a crisis now, to present evidence they were not trafficking. Republicans opposed the bill. The same year, progressives pushed a decriminalization bill that the Mills administration opposed.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency says only 2 milligrams is a lethal dose in most people. That’s where LePage gets the “2,000 doses” from. But possession of at least 200 milligrams is still generally a felony here. The new law is designed to allow some to avoid more serious trafficking if they can prove they are not selling it.

LePage: “We went in and we defined and worked with the schools to increase it to pay the 55 percent [of basic school funding].”

This remark came after the Democratic governor noted her status as the first one to fund 55 percent of basic K-12 education costs. It came after a raft of federal COVID-19 aid. She accused her Republican opponent of “underfunding” schools during his tenure.

LePage did not get Maine to that mark under a state formula that determines the amount of state funding that school districts need to provide “equitable” education to students. In 2004, Maine voters passed a referendum saying the state should provide 55 percent of this funding.

Progress on this is tracked directly in the law books. Funding bottomed out below 46 percent after the Great Recession and rebounded during the LePage era, but only to around 50 percent. When you go to a broader definition that he has cited, including pension and insurance costs, he got to nearly 53.4 percent by his last year in office.

Mills: “I can’t control Putin invading Ukraine, which has driven up oil prices and grocery prices, Ukraine being the breadbasket of several continents. I can’t control the baby formula issues and other issues of avian flu.”

LePage let out a bemused laugh as Mills remarked and underscored some of the valid global and national reasons for high costs. Look no farther than New Hampshire — where No. 2 heating oil prices are roughly the same as in Maine — to see how these have played out.

The Ukraine reference is a little bit dated now, though. The spring increase in fuel prices happened around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also as demand increased after the COVID-19 pandemic. Prices declined over the summer, but a recent production cut by oil-producing nations including Saudi Arabia has led them to spike again.

President Joe Biden has also blamed Putin for price spikes, but a GasBuddy analyst recently told NPR his administration’s desire to move away from reliance on the fossil-fuel sector has undermined companies’ will to invest. Both Mills and LePage have cited a long-term desire to move away, but the large-scale shift is at least a part of the issue here, too.

LePage: “Nearly 60 percent of Mainers are heating with heating oil. In 2011, when I took over as governor, it was 82 percent.”

The former governor was underscoring his record with this claim, which grabbed our attention because we also flagged it during his 2017 State of the State address. An 80 percent figure was cited a lot near the start of LePage’s tenure, but it dates back to 2000.

When you stick to fuel oil and go by one-year census estimates, Maine went from 68.7 percent of housing units heated predominantly with oil in 2011 to 58.7 percent in 2021. The state is transitioning away from it, but it is going slower than LePage would have you believe.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...