AUGUSTA — A day after getting an “incomplete” grade from Democrats for his first 100-days’ job performance, Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he’s focused on the 60 days ahead, and that he’s confident he can accomplish the big items on his agenda if the minority party cooperates.
The Republican governor said his administration deserves “an A plus” for its work in the weeks after he was sworn in Jan. 5 on such matters as expediting state repayments of a Medicaid debt to hospitals, although he acknowledged not much has been accomplished in recent weeks. Democrats had urged LePage on Wednesday to avoid distractions such as removal of a labor-themed mural from state offices and refocus his sights on serious issues like job creation and economic development.
LePage, back a few days from a Jamaica vacation, had a response to his critics today as he opened the Blaine House to scores of business owners who contributed suggestions to his effort to streamline and overhaul state regulations that are believed to hamper job growth.
“I’ve come back from vacation, I’m ready to go to work and the loyal opposition needs to come to the plate. Either vote up or down, or give us some suggestions, because the state of Maine and the people of Maine deserve better,” LePage said. “We are open for suggestions, but you have to make some.”
Besides regulatory reform, LePage’s “Final 60 Days” list of priorities includes pension, tax and health care reforms. Roughly 60 days remain before the Legislature’s statutory mid-June adjournment.
Legislative efforts lurched forward today in two of the administration’s priority areas: tax cuts and regulatory reform. Health care proposals are still being finalized.
The GOP leaders of the Taxation Committee outlined a proposal embraced by eight of the panel’s 13 members that would cut $203 million in state taxes, as the governor insists. Among its components are reducing from four to two the state’s income tax brackets, eliminating the 7 percent tax on meals served at retirement homes and creating a state tax “holiday” for purchases up to $1,500. The plan would drop 70,000 filers from the tax rolls, said Sen. David Trahan, the tax panel’s Senate chairman.
“We’re going to fight passionately for this package,” vowed Trahan, R-Waldo, adding that he’s confident money to pay for the cuts can be found in efficiencies throughout state government.
The leading Democrat on the committee, Rep. Seth Berry of Bowdoinham, warned that there’s no provision to pay for most of the tax proposal, and that the rest would be paid for through proposed state pension changes sought by LePage and opposed by public workers, and cuts in social programs Berry said would hurt the elderly and children. But Berry said there are portions of the tax bill that Democrats can support, including reductions for middle-income earners.
Meanwhile, the Committee on Regulatory Fairness and Reform held a hearing on a bill that results from the scores of suggestions that were collected during the panel’s series of “red tape” meetings held throughout the state earlier this year.
Among the bill’s supporters was the Environmental Priorities Coalition, which consists of 26 conservation and public health organizations and opposed an earlier version of the legislation. Provisions the coalition and others feared would roll back environmental protections were removed and the bill now focuses on improving regulatory systems and processes.
“That’s the right strategy for a state like Maine where our economy and our environment are so tightly intertwined,” said Pete Didisheim of the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
Democrats also praised the reworked version of the bill, which provides advocacy and support for small businesses with an ombudsman and a special advocate.
“We created a bipartisan proposal by setting aside the rhetoric and extreme proposals,” said Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, a member of the committee.