For a guy who says he hates politics, Gov. LePage is amazingly good at it.

Just look at the issues that have dominated this legislative session.

Under his watch, Maine is one of the worst states in the country for job creation and the child poverty rate has climbed steadily, with one in four children under the age of 5 living below the poverty line. But what is everyone talking about? Welfare fraud.

Even though the governor can produce only scant evidence that there is any fraud at all and no proof that it is widespread, he has made it look like scammers buying beer and cigarettes were responsible for most of the Department of Health and Human Services’ $3.4 billion budget.

And if you question him on it, you are defending welfare. Not just welfare, but welfare fraud.

The governor has set up a whole range of issues so that he wins politically even when he loses.

He is so good at defining the terms of the debate that it is noteworthy when he blows it, which is what he appears to be doing right now over the naloxone issue. The governor has staked out a position so far-out that he’s the one on defense this time, and there are not many people backing him up.

Quick review: The medicine naloxone (known by its brand name Narcan) reverses the effects of opiates like heroin, and has been used for years by paramedics and emergency room staff to save the lives of people who have overdosed.

As overdose deaths climb across the nation, states have been making the drug more available and the manufacturer has redesigned the packaging so it can be administered by people who aren’t professionals.

Other states have passed laws that put the drug into the hands of addicts, family members, police officers or anyone else who might come across a drug user who could otherwise die. But not Maine.

Last year, Gov. LePage vetoed a bill that would make Narcan more available, especially to first responders. He explained his position in a veto letter, saying, it would “make it easier for those with substance abuse problems to push themselves to the edge, or beyond. It provides a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.”

He threatened to veto a new version of the bill this year, until he had a closed-door meeting with Rep. Barry Hobbins, who told him a personal story about a relative with a drug problem.

So the governor compromised: He would support giving Narcan to family members, but not police officers or EMTs, even though they are far more likely to be first on the scene of a drug overdose.

House Republicans thought so much of this position that they joined Democrats and passed the bill (without the compromise language) unanimously.

The governor’s handling of this issue provided a fascinating look at how his mind works and his style of governing.

As usual, he came out swinging from the start. Discounting the moving testimony by parents who have had to bury children after they overdosed and the law enforcement officers who said it would save lives, he said the bill would “encourage heroin.”

But when he met with Hobbins, one of the few Democrats he gets along with, LePage relented. For a man who governs by anecdote, a personal story was all he needed to change his mind.

Imagine if someone in the First Family was into R&D, or somebody the governor liked told him a story about not making enough money to buy health insurance? We’d have some big research bonds and Medicaid expansion by now.

The governor is not taking the latest news well. “Despite their agreement with me, the Legislature has put up a version of the bill they know full-well will be shot down,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “We are trying to provide this lifesaving measure to families, but lawmakers are trying to score political points.”

Clearly the governor is not scoring any points on this one. His highly principled concern about “encouraging heroin” has morphed into a question of “liability” that could easily be fixed, if it really exists.

Last year he was ready to let some people die so others would think about the danger. This year he’ll let them die to avoid a lawsuit.

And why would it be safe for a parent to administer Narcan, but not a cop? What if the addict doesn’t tell his mother that he’s thinking of doing too much tonight, so you better stick around? What about the first-time user who overdoses, but didn’t have the foresight to make sure his family was prepared?

The governor is clearly flailing, but his opponents should not read too much into it: He’s still a master at defining issues and making others play on his terms. That’s not something you just forget.

 

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]