July 10, 2012

LePage: Didn't intend to insult anyone with 'Gestapo' comment

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage exercised his own editorial judgement when he described the IRS as the “new Gestapo” during his recent radio address. However, the governor acknowledged Monday that his reference to the Nazi secret police "clouded” his message about the federal health care law.

The governor’s written statement Monday stopped short of a public apology, which had been demanded by national and local Jewish groups. However, Emily Chaleff, director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said LePage called her to personally apologize for his remarks.

At the same time, LePage told WMTW-TV in an interview Monday that, “It was never intended to offend anyone and if someone’s offended, then they ought to be goddamned mad at the federal government.”

The Gestapo were Nazi Germany’s secret police under Adolf Hitler, who imprisoned and murdered millions of people during World War II.

Monday’s events marked the third day of a controversy that garnered national media attention over a comment that LePage personally added to his weekly radio address.

Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s communications director, often writes the governor’s radio message. That was the case last week; however, Bennett said the governor inserted the “Gestapo” reference after she and staff finished editing it. Bennett said the comment initiated a “healthy dialogue” among staff, but it remained in his prepared remarks when LePage recorded the address on Friday. It was not ad-libbed during recording.

The detail adds context to the governor’s remark. Some of LePage’s opponents originally believed that the administration cleared the comment to spur opposition to a health care law that divides the American public.

The governor said in today’s written statement that it was not his “intent to insult anyone, especially the Jewish Community, or minimize the fact that millions of people were murdered.”

He added, “Clearly, what has happened is that the use of the word Gestapo has clouded my message. Obamacare is forcing the American people to buy health insurance or else pay a tax.”

The '’Gestapo” comment was a reference to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires Americans not insured by their employers or Medicaid to buy health insurance or pay an annual penalty when filing their tax returns. The provision, known more broadly as the individual mandate, was the subject of a multi-state lawsuit. Maine was a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The mandate was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

LePage said during his radio address, which aired Saturday, that the court decision has “made America less free.”

“We the people have been told there is no choice,” he said. “You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo – the IRS.”

Anti-Defamation League New England Regional Director Derrek L. Shulman said LePage’s statement on Monday was “disappointing and insufficient.”

“The statement doesn’t demonstrate an understanding or recognition that a comparison between a Nazi police force and a modern governmental agency have no place in modern politics or anywhere else,” Shulman said. “It’s absurd.”

House Speaker Rep. Robert Nutting, R-Oakland, said that while he would have chosen a different word, the uproar over the use of “Gestapo” was “much ado about nothing.”

“Politicians from both sides of the aisle have invoked the word 'gestapo’ in the past to reference heavy-handed government tactics,” said Nutting, adding that Democratic protests to the governor’s comments were “manufactured outrage” that “indicates to me that their party is desperately seeking a way to become relevant.”

Response to the governor’s comments has been as divided as the debate over the individual mandate itself. LePage has been blasted by Democrats. However, he’s been applauded by online commenters and in email responses to a Portland Press Herald story.

Many of the emails refer to the hiring of 16,500 IRS agents to enforce the health care law as evidence that the federal government is imposing a punitive law on the public.

The 16,500 figure originated from a 2009 estimate by Republicans on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, which handles federal tax legislation. The Treasury Department in February released an updated IRS budget request for fiscal year 2012. The request showed that agency is seeking approximately 1,269 employees to implement the health law.

The mandate penalty will be implemented by 2016. Estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation put the penalty at $695 for each uninsured adult or 2.5 percent of family income. Exemptions will be granted based on financial hardship, religious beliefs and those without coverage for less than three months.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that 4 million people will end up paying the penalty. However, there are questions about how effective the IRS will be collecting penalty amounts due to the law’s strict enforcement limitations. The CBO analysis notes that legal penalties cannot be assessed and the health law does not allow the IRS to seize bank accounts or garnish wages.

The individual mandate was originally a Republican concept derived from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which introduced the measure in 1989 as a counterpoint to Democratic calls for a single-payer health care system.

In 1993, former U.S. Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., proposed an individual mandate bill signed by 19 Republican co-sponsors as an alternative to President Bill Clinton’s health care overhaul. The proposal failed, as did Clinton’s health care effort.

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