AUGUSTA — In his first State of the State address, Gov. Paul LePage called on Maine lawmakers Tuesday night to be outraged about the state’s lagging incomes and economic opportunity.

“We need more jobs. We need more careers to pull our state out of poverty. We need good-paying careers that will offer benefits, security and job satisfaction,” LePage said, drawing one of several standing ovations from both Republicans and Democrats.

The 50-minute speech in the House chamber touched on LePage’s familiar priorities: reducing state spending for health care and welfare, lowering energy costs, reducing taxes and reducing regulatory burdens on businesses.

It featured familiar tough talk about cutting welfare and refusing to pad the pockets of renewable-energy “interest groups.”

But it did not include the kind of aggressive jabs or blame that LePage has aimed at Democrats in recent weeks.

He even joked about that near the end of his speech, when he looked over to House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, who had challenged the governor to be more positive. “Now Emily,” he said, “my tone all right?”

The address ended on a personal note when the governor spoke about being a victim of domestic abuse as a child.

“Those memories are not pleasant, but I will share my past to help end domestic abuse,” LePage said as members of both parties stood and applauded.

Because men are responsible for most domestic abuse, LePage said, the issue should become men’s issue.

“It is time men stand up, speak up and stamp out domestic violence. As men, we must stand together as one and say no to domestic violence,” he said.

LePage began his speech by highlighting some of the accomplishments of his first year in office, including tax cuts, pension reform and increased aid for schools. “We have taken a right turn on the road to economic recovery,” he said.

He called on lawmakers to move quickly to adopt his plan for $221 million in cuts from health and human services programs to balance the state budget over the next 17 months.

“My administration did not create this problem and did not invent it,” said LePage.

Democrats have resisted LePage’s proposal, arguing that because the shortfall was based on faulty budgeting, it should not be used as an excuse to cut programs.

But LePage reiterated his argument that it is time to reverse a long-term expansion of MaineCare and other social assistance programs.

“We must stop promising people a free lunch when those working in Maine are earning below the national average. It is unfair to promise people they can get things for free when the resulting bills are not being paid,” he said.

While the budget shortfall has dominated business in the State House for weeks, LePage used the speech to look to his longer-term goals.

He said his administration will soon introduce a series of education reforms intended to increase teachers’ effectiveness. He said he wants to increase access to career and technical education programs.

LePage also said he wants to “further reduce our tax burden,” although he gave no specifics.
He said state government must continue to reduce red tape and regulation that stifles business growth, although he did not say how. “We need to work with our job creators – not against them,” he said.

LePage said he wants to recognize communities around the state that “go the extra mile in creating jobs and wealth.”

He said efforts to improve the business environment shouldn’t change the fact that “Maine is the most beautiful state in the nation. … The choice between our environment and our business climate is not either-or. It should always be both,” he said.

He said he opposes efforts to require more use of expensive, green energy – a reference to a petition drive to boost the use of renewable energy in the state.

“I do not support Augusta being in the business of increasing costs on hardworking Maine families to pad the pockets of interest groups,” he said, “I support letting the free market decide.”

Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he welcomed LePage’s more positive tone.

“He clearly got the message from Mainers and from Democrats. We’re tired of blaming,” Alfond said.

Alfond praised LePage for taking on domestic violence, but said the governor still has not laid out a plan for reviving the economy. And, he said, despite talking about the need to provide more opportunities for kids, the administration is trying to cut a variety of services like Head Start.

Assistant House Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, said LePage reminded lawmakers that there will be much work to do after the budget shortfall is solved.

“He refocused on what his direction will be when we get through with the budget,” Cushing said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:
jrichardson@mainetoday.com