Gov. LePage is hardly known for retreating. Yet, in recent weeks, the governor has made some significant political reversals, including introducing a new bond proposal, expressing interest in Medicaid expansion and reneging on his paralysis-by-veto threat.
What’s going on here? In a word: re-election.
For all his previous bluster and disdain for “politics,” it turns out the governor is actually a calculating politician who understands that ideological rigidity is decidedly less expedient as re-election approaches.
Flying in the face of two years of passionate anti-bonding rhetoric, the governor’s new bond proposal is a striking reversal.
“Until our debts — and more importantly our spending — are back under control,” the governor said previously, “adding more of a burden would be fiscally irresponsible.”
Yet here was the governor last week proposing $100 million in new state borrowing for roads and infrastructure. That’s on top of recent calls to bond $100 million for a new prison, $200 million to pay the hospital debt and, if the hospitals get paid, the release of $100 million in bonds he has refused to issue.
All this while still facing an $800 million structural gap in the next biennial budget.
It’s hard to imagine the governor now somehow believes our spending and indebtedness are miraculously “back under control.”
No, the governor’s flip-flop was a political necessity.
His previous opposition not only lacked grounding in fiscal reality, it stifled short-term job creation and prevented the state from making long-term investments critical to our economic growth.
That’s hardly a winning campaign message in a state desperately looking for any signs of economic recovery. Now the governor can tout his proposed investments on the campaign trail and rail against legislators if they refuse to pass them.
The governor also previously denounced the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, saying “Maine will not be complicit in the degradation of our nation’s premier health care system” and explaining he “would not lift a finger” to implement the law.
Yet last week he indicated openness to participating in Medicaid expansion if he’s able to secure the “best deal for Mainers.”
The governor’s previous opposition to Medicaid expansion positioned him as the principal impediment to 55,000 low-income Mainers gaining access to quality health insurance. What’s more, the financials are so compelling that the governor couldn’t credibly ignore them and make any claims to fiscal responsibility.
Even the conservative Heritage Foundation cited estimates that Maine is likely to save $690 million between 2014 and 2022 if it expands Medicaid.
Couple that with the procession of conservative Republican governors who have embraced expansion, and Gov. LePage risked looking like a cold-hearted and fiscally reckless tea party outlier.
To his credit, the possibility of expansion will infuriate some elements of the governor’s base, but that base has proven remarkably loyal and certainly won’t abandon the governor for Eliot Cutler or the eventual Democratic nominee.
On the issue of Maine’s hospital debt payment, the governor has repeatedly threatened — and then retreated from — holding the legislative session hostage. Initially he said, “Until (legislators) pay the hospitals, nothing gets done. Nothing.” He added, “It’s the only way I can get anything done (in the Legislature). You gotta threaten them. They won’t get it done unless I force it.”
Yet there was the governor letting six subsequent pieces of legislation become law without his signature either as a “gesture of good faith” or, as he said later, an “error on my part.”
Regardless of the rationale, the failure to execute on the veto threat is a significant about-face for our typically immovable governor and reflects a clear understanding of the potential political fallout.
To most Mainers, his veto threat sounded more like a bully’s schoolyard taunt than thoughtful or responsible leadership. It reinforced the worst perceptions of the governor, narrowing opportunities to broaden his electoral appeal.
What’s more, had he followed through, the governor would have owned the ensuing gridlock and thereby wagered all of his political capital — and likely his political career — on an issue that, while important, is unlikely to drive voting behavior next fall.
Many of those close to the governor contend he is a shrewd negotiator and savvy businessman, angling for the greatest possible leverage to extract maximum concessions from his political opponents.
They claim the governor’s past bluster on bonding, Medicaid expansion and hospital debt was simply a clever and calculated attempt to get his political opponents to move closer to his position before cutting a deal.
That’s a comforting yarn for the governor’s devotees, but don’t believe the hype.
For politicians — even those who shun the term — the threat of political mortality is a powerful motivator.
The governor is taking his foot off the ideological accelerator to better position himself for re-election in a state that still values statesmanlike collaboration and moderation over his past brand of divisiveness and ideological rigidity.
Michael Cuzzi can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @CuzziMJ.