AUGUSTA — In a chamber filled with lawmakers who only hours earlier were calling each other liars, Gov. Paul LePage delivered his third State of the State address Tuesday night, highlighting his biggest policy achievements to date and then calling for additional reforms.
The Republican governor, who spoke passionately during his 50-minute speech, talked most about welfare reform – a key issue for him, and one that will be a hallmark of his re-election campaign this year.
“Liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path – a path that is unsustainable,” he said. “They want a massive expansion of Maine’s welfare state. Expanded welfare does not break the cycle of generational poverty. It breaks the budget.”
LePage proposed limiting the use of benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, specifically prohibiting funds from being used for alcohol and tobacco and making sure the money is spent only in Maine.
The federal program provides benefits as cash to eligible recipients, so some of LePage’s proposals may be difficult to implement.
Another major but likely controversial proposal by the governor was the creation of “Open for Business Zones,” which would offer reduced energy rates and other tax benefits for companies that located in those zones. Employees in the zones would not be required to join labor unions – a sort of mini right-to-work initiative.
Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant said LePage couldn’t get right-to-work legislation passed when he had Republican majorities in the Legislature, but seems intent on continuing to try, even with Democrats controlling the House and Senate.
Addressing Maine’s ongoing drug problem, LePage proposed adding 14 positions to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, along with four special drug prosecutors and four new judges to preside in drug courts in Portland, Lewiston, Bangor and Presque Isle.
“We must hunt down dealers and get them off the streets,” LePage said. “We must protect our citizens from drug-related crimes and violence.”
Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Portland, said she appreciates the governor’s attention to Maine’s drug problem but “we’re never going to arrest our way out of our drug problem.”
Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said he would have liked to hear more about treatment for addiction. “The governor does not have a track record of supporting treatment,” he said.
In another bold proposal, LePage said he plans to launch a statewide referendum that would ask Maine voters if they would support $100 million in tax relief in exchange for $100 million in reduced government spending.
House Minority Leader Alex Willette, R-Mapleton, said he sees nothing wrong with asking voters to decide how much government they want.
Democrats, however, said there have been attempts to set tax policy by referendum in the past and all have failed. In fact, Democratic leaders said LePage offered few new ideas.
“What we heard tonight was a lot of reruns of the governor’s failed policies,” said House Speaker Mark Eves.
Senate Minority Leader Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said LePage offered “bold initiatives,” and he is particularly interested in learning more about the Open for Business Zones.
For all of the governor’s plans, he will need support from Democrats to pass anything. LePage acknowledged that at the end of his speech.
“In closing, I welcome common-sense solutions from anyone who wants to put Maine on the right path,” he said. “Bring me bold solutions. Put your politics aside.”
It was an interesting finish, given the events that preceded the speech.
On Monday night, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee took a surprise vote on a plan to restore $40 million in cuts to municipal revenue sharing. Only Democrats voted.
Republicans on the committee had left for the night, and said they had been told that no vote would happen until Tuesday. Democrats, however, said the Republicans “took a walk” to avoid a controversial vote.
Democrats and Republicans spent Tuesday afternoon pointing fingers at each other over who was to blame for Monday’s vote.
Republicans, in particular, fumed. House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, called it an “unprecedented breach of trust.”
One Republican member of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Flood, took responsibility for his part and characterized the incident as a misunderstanding. While dozens of Republicans gathered early Tuesday afternoon to denounce the other party, Flood was absent.
Later in the day, when the Appropriations Committee met, members appeared to have mended fences.
On Tuesday night, LePage’s speech was heavy on rhetoric, especially regarding welfare. He continued to rail against the expansion of Medicaid and said “shame on you” to those who want to expand the taxpayer-funded health care program in Maine.
Fredette said he thought the most important line in the speech was about focusing on the next generation, not the next election.
Democrats, by contrast, said LePage’s remarks seemed like little more than a campaign speech designed to excite his base of support.
Eves, asked after the speech about a particular detail cited by LePage, responded by saying, “I encourage everyone to fact-check everything the governor said.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: