AUGUSTA – What Gov. Paul LePage has said – and how he has said it – has in no small part defined his tumultuous three years in office.
It will likely be no different Tuesday night, when the governor gives his third State of the State address. LePage’s remarks will be dissected in post-speech analyses, but the themes – an aggressive welfare reform agenda and a Maine economy that’s tracking with the national recovery – have been foreshadowed by his administration. Those topics and others will also light the path for the governor’s re-election committee.
LePage’s campaign and his administration have tried to pivot from his penchant for saying things that people have found objectionable, or false, to a mantra of “action, not words.”
The administration has often promoted positive economic news, including the state’s 6.2 percent unemployment rate, the lowest since December 2008, when Maine and the country began their plunge into the Great Recession. The administration and Republican lawmakers have attributed the steady improvement in the unemployment rate to Republican policies.
“Governor LePage’s reforms have significantly reduced Maine’s unemployment rate and the drop is because people are finding jobs, not quitting the search,” Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House Republican leader, said in a prepared statement. “With reforms to Maine’s tax, welfare, regulatory, and energy policies, we are finally seeing economic growth after decades of Democratic party rule.”
Democrats have made great use of LePage’s wayward comments, and have responded with a new tack. On Monday, Democratic legislative leaders held a news conference to highlight issues that they say undercut LePage’s image as a businessman and a leader.
In a statement, Democratic leaders noted several ongoing controversies in the Department of Health and Human Services, including the loss of $20 million in federal funding for the Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, ongoing problems with $40 million worth of contracts for non-emergency transportation for MaineCare patients, and a scandal involving alleged shredding of public documents that justified $4 million in public health grants by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Democrats have sought to make the controversies tangible examples of what they described as the governor’s failed leadership.
“Governor LePage has divided Maine and pitted us against each other,” Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said in a prepared statement. “He’s insulted us and turned Maine into a punch line on the nightly talk shows. Instead of offering solutions to poverty and unemployment, his administration has vilified and shamed working people. He hasn’t done right by the people, but tomorrow night, he has an opportunity to offer solutions to problems, instead of the same old political rhetoric.”
Democrats have sought to counter the brightening unemployment figures by noting that the state has gained only one-third of the jobs it lost during the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Maine has 21,000 fewer jobs than in February 2008, the employment peak before the recession.
The job growth has come in construction, transportation and utility work, business and professional services, and hospitality. Manufacturing and government have lost jobs in that period.
‘MAJOR BUSINESS INVESTMENT’
The rhetoric over the unemployment rate is likely to increase. The governor is expected to make it a topic of Tuesday’s address and his re-election bid.
Democrats use other indicators to undercut the governor’s arguments that his policies are responsible for an economic recovery. They’re highlighting an increase in the number of homeless children. According to the annual Kids Count report, nearly one in four Maine children younger than 5 is growing up in poverty.
The LePage administration has promised to introduce a “major business investment” initiative to create “hundreds of new jobs for Mainers.”
That and other policy initiatives will need support from Democrats, who have controlled the Legislature and blunted the governor’s reform agenda since 2012.
Despite that, the governor pushed through a $400 million package of tax cuts in 2011 and protected it in last year’s two-year budget. His reforms to the state employees’ pension system and accumulating debt have also survived largely unscathed.
The administration and Republicans also believe that LePage has the political advantage with welfare reform, an issue that he has hammered increasingly in 2014. Democrats have said that the governor’s focus on welfare fraud has produced few results despite the significant investment of taxpayers’ money. However, LePage and his re-election campaign continue to make “program integrity” efforts a rhetorical and policy priority.
LePage and Republicans have also tried to inject welfare reform into the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion – another issue that’s expected to arise during the State of the State address.
On Monday, Sen. Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, the Senate minority leader, said that Democrats’ push for Medicaid expansion – frequently dubbed “welfare expansion” – would lead to financial ruin.
“Democrats are proposing to expand the very welfare program that has just given us a budget shortfall and is responsible for racking up the massive hospital debt that Gov. LePage and Republican lawmakers pushed to pay off,” Thibodeau said in a prepared statement. “Gov. LePage has made it clear that he’s focused on making Medicaid work for the disabled Mainers it was originally intended to help, not able-bodied adults, and I think we can expect him to make that argument Tuesday night.”
The administration has indicated that energy, specifically Maine’s electricity rates, will be a topic of the State of the State address.
LePage has been an advocate for expanding Maine’s natural-gas capacity since he took office in 2011. Last month, he joined the other five New England governors in initiating a first-of-its-kind plan to increase the region’s natural-gas pipeline capacity by nearly 20 percent in three years and build at least one major electric transmission line to bring renewable energy from Canada.
Ratepayers would partially subsidize the billions of dollars needed to fund the projects. But advocates say the costs would be recovered through savings on energy bills as the projects increase supplies of lower-cost power.
Natural gas now fuels more than half of all power-generating plants. A shortage of gas in the region on cold days last year sent wholesale electricity prices up 57 percent over the 2012 average.
The State of the State address, starting at 7 p.m., will be aired live on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and streamed to the Portland Press Herald website.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: