It may go down as the most significant vacation in Maine history.

Before Gov. LePage’s early April jaunt to Jamaica, the legislative session was shaping up as one of the most contentious since the 1991 state shutdown, and the new governor was right in the middle of every controversy.

He promised Wisconsin-style protests over right-to-work legislation. He scoffed at the notion that state law should protect vernal pools or keep BPA out of baby bottles. Critics who wanted to protest his unilateral decision to take down a pro-labor mural were “idiots.” The NAAPC, the governor told the world on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, could kiss his butt.

And if legislators changed a hair on the head of his proposed budget, they should expect a veto. But then LePage went on vacation, and since his return the most contentious session has practically turned into a love-fest.

Many of the most controversial bills were killed or carried over until next year. A budget passed with overwhelming support from members of both parties, and got the governor’s signature. What happened?

Right before he left, Gov. LePage got a smackdown, not from his critics in the opposition party or from the media, but from his Republican colleagues, who had just gotten their first taste of life in the majority in a generation and who liked it. In a closed-door caucus with Senate Republicans, the governor apparently heard that his mouth was getting in the way of their common goals. A published column signed by six Republican senators that ran in this newspaper said as much publicly, and in very polite terms told him to zip it. And after his return from the tropics, that’s what he did.

So with the next two-year budget signed and just a few odds and ends to clean up this session, who ended up on top?

Not the governor. After signing the bill, he groused that lawmakers had not gone along with his plan to end health care benefits for childless adults and parents whose incomes are just over the poverty line. “We will look at what we can do to fix it next time,” he warned.

Not the Democrats, even though their leaders took credit for moderating LePage’s original budget proposal. It is still built around a tax cut that will affect a lot of people a little, and a few people a lot. It eliminates taxes on 70,000 low-income Mainers who hardly paid any taxes anyway and slightly trims the tax rate on the top bracket, giving a windfall to the Donald Sussmans of the world.

The danger seen by some Democrats is that the phased-in tax cut they supported will take a bigger bite out of the next two-year budget than it takes from the one just signed, and the programs that they fought to save this year will again be on the chopping block.

If the news releases announcing the budget’s completion can be used to measure who had the most enthusiasm, Gov. LePage is tepidly happy about “some of the work that has been done,” and Democrats were “relieved” that the budget was signed.

As for Senate President Kevin Raye? He was “delighted.”

Raye and House Speaker Robert Nutting had delivered the biggest tax cut in Maine history, a reform of the state pension system that will head off an actuarial tsunami and enough cuts to social service programs to be billed as “welfare reform.”

They did it while increasing the state share of payments to schools (without quite making up for the loss of federal stimulus funds that is hurting most school districts) and keeping higher education funding level.

The budget was balanced with no state shutdown days, so it is being described as gimmick-free, unless you consider the expenditure of $20 million from a renegotiated liquor contract that hasn’t actually been negotiated yet a gimmick.

There is plenty there for LePage to grab and run a victory lap, but that’s not in the governor’s character.

He signed the budget, but what else could he do? A veto would have been overridden, and he would have looked irrelevant. Letting it become law without his signature would have been proof he was irrelevant.

So instead, he signed his name, complained that it wasn’t good enough and threatened to come back with more ideas next year.

He is keeping himself busy vetoing any bill that calls for a study commission, and so far those vetoes have been politely upheld by the same Republicans who voted for them in the first place. It can’t be an accident that all of the self-inflicted wounds suffered by LePage happened before his Jamaica vacation. And the low profile paid off.

Democrats who were waiting to pounce on the next outrageous statement kept waiting all spring, and Nutting and Raye managed to achieve significant policy initiatives in health care and regulatory reform, all while leading the Legislature to an on-time adjournment. No one saw that coming in March.

The victory lap is being taken by Nutting and Raye, who have nothing but kind things to say about the governor and their Democratic colleagues, but make it clear who is running the show in Augusta these days.

If LePage wants to know how to be more effective, he now knows what to do. The next time he needs to get something done, all he has to do is go on vacation.

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]