Expect Gov. Paul LePage to push for continued welfare reform, find ways to lower energy costs and take another run at right-to-work legislation, following his victory at the polls Tuesday.
The success of the Republican governor’s policy proposals over the next four years will no doubt be influenced by the final make-up of the Legislature, but his priorities have been evident, even if he didn’t detail any specific new policy proposals during his campaign.
During his re-election bid, the governor talked often about his efforts to reform many public assistance programs in Maine, including imposing a five-year cap on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits and hiring more investigators to root out fraud. That message resonated with voters, according to polls released ahead of the election, and may have helped get him re-elected.
This summer, he announced that the state would begin enforcing a 2011 law that allows drug testing of certain welfare recipients who have prior felony drug convictions. He may now try to make drug testing for welfare recipients universal.
Another welfare area that LePage might target is General Assistance, an emergency cash benefit administered by cities and towns but funded largely by the state. The governor has said the state shoulders too much of the cost of General Assistance, particularly in cities such as Portland, Lewiston and Bangor, which get higher reimbursements, and he may well try to change that.
LePage also has talked often recently about the high costs of energy and its effects on business and job growth. He has said that the best thing Maine can do in the short term is expand natural gas pipelines, but he also has talked often about expanding hydropower. As for solar and wind energy projects, the governor is less likely to propose legislation that would make it any easier for those industries.
LePage has tried twice already to institute right-to-work legislation, which would guarantee that no person can be compelled, as a condition of employment, to join or pay dues to a labor union. Unions have strongly opposed LePage’s efforts, and he has failed to receive enough support among lawmakers, even those in his own party, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try again. Currently, 24 states have right-to-work laws.
On the campaign trail, LePage often said that if Maine were a right-to-work state, it would open the door to big businesses. But Maine has other challenges, too, including a trained and educated workforce, which he could try to address, and geography, which he cannot change.
On education, LePage is likely to try to lift the cap on charter schools. A law that passed in 2011 allowed for up to 10 charter schools, but the governor has been a strong proponent of the private schools, including virtual charters.
He may also try again to get a law passed that would allow public dollars to be used for religious schools, but that proposal may have difficulty gaining traction. In general, the conservative Republican is certain to continue to look for ways to shrink the size of state government and privatize whatever services he can.
During one of the debates last month, LePage said proudly that he had reduced the number of state employees by about 3,500 in his first term, mostly through attrition.
Although LePage’s agenda and priorities are not likely to differ much from what Mainers saw during the past four years, whether he governs any differently is a fair topic for speculation. His first term was punctuated by frequent controversial statements, as well as sharp clashes with Democrats, who gained control of the Legislature in the 2012 elections midway through his first term.
If Democrats retain control of the Legislature this week, it’s possible that LePage may try to work toward consensus on selected issues, rather than continue in a ‘my way or the highway’ fashion that led to partisan standoffs over most major policy initiatives in the last session.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or: