January 25, 2012

State of the State: LePage talks tough on jobs, spending and abuse

The governor avoids attacks and adds a personal note about domestic violence.

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — In his first State of the State address, Gov. Paul LePage called on Maine lawmakers Tuesday night to be outraged about the state’s lagging incomes and economic opportunity.

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Gov. Paul LePage gestures near the end of his first State of the State address to a joint session of the Maine House and Senate tonight at the State House in Augusta.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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Gov. Paul LePage greets Rep. Joyce Maker, R-Calais, as he walks down the aisle in the State House to give his first State of the State address on Tuesday evening in Augusta.

Photo by Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

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Read Gov. LePage's State of the State speech

LePage told the Legislature that his childhood memories “are ravaged with domestic violence,” and he promised to do whatever he could to end domestic abuse. He received a standing ovation from Democrats and Republican.

LePage said state government needs to become even more customer service oriented if it wants to build a reputation that “Maine is open for business.” “We are changing the culture of state agencies from No to Can Do,” the governor added.

LePage said the state’s annual median household income – $45,708 – is 18 percent below the national average. “It is sad, really really sad,” LePage said. The governor called on legislators to be “outraged” and to work to create a better climate for businesses to create higher paying jobs.

Noting that Maine had the ninth highest tax burden in the country, the governor pointed out that “even Taxachusetts was lower than Maine.” He said if the state is to be truly open for business its leaders must reduce the cost of doing business here.

LePage called on the Legislature to create a new Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. He said the agency would become the steward of Maine’s natural resource based economy for generations to come.

The governor’s proposed Certified Business Friendly Community Program would recognize those towns that help foster business growth by designating them as towns that are open for business. “I believe that Maine is the most beautiful state in the nation. It is important that we do not lose sight of our roots as we work to improve our economy. The choice between our environment and our business climate is not either or. It should always be both,” LePage said.

– Dennis Hoey, Staff Writer

“We need more jobs. We need more careers to pull our state out of poverty. We need good-paying careers that will offer benefits, security and job satisfaction,” LePage said, drawing one of several standing ovations from both Republicans and Democrats.

The 50-minute speech in the House chamber touched on LePage’s familiar priorities: reducing state spending for health care and welfare, lowering energy costs, reducing taxes and reducing regulatory burdens on businesses.

It featured familiar tough talk about cutting welfare and refusing to pad the pockets of renewable-energy “interest groups.”

But it did not include the kind of aggressive jabs or blame that LePage has aimed at Democrats in recent weeks.

He even joked about that near the end of his speech, when he looked over to House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, who had challenged the governor to be more positive. “Now Emily,” he said, “my tone all right?”

The address ended on a personal note when the governor spoke about being a victim of domestic abuse as a child.

“Those memories are not pleasant, but I will share my past to help end domestic abuse,” LePage said as members of both parties stood and applauded.

Because men are responsible for most domestic abuse, LePage said, the issue should become men’s issue.

“It is time men stand up, speak up and stamp out domestic violence. As men, we must stand together as one and say no to domestic violence,” he said.

LePage began his speech by highlighting some of the accomplishments of his first year in office, including tax cuts, pension reform and increased aid for schools. “We have taken a right turn on the road to economic recovery,” he said.

He called on lawmakers to move quickly to adopt his plan for $221 million in cuts from health and human services programs to balance the state budget over the next 17 months.

“My administration did not create this problem and did not invent it,” said LePage.

Democrats have resisted LePage’s proposal, arguing that because the shortfall was based on faulty budgeting, it should not be used as an excuse to cut programs.

But LePage reiterated his argument that it is time to reverse a long-term expansion of MaineCare and other social assistance programs.

“We must stop promising people a free lunch when those working in Maine are earning below the national average. It is unfair to promise people they can get things for free when the resulting bills are not being paid,” he said.

While the budget shortfall has dominated business in the State House for weeks, LePage used the speech to look to his longer-term goals.

He said his administration will soon introduce a series of education reforms intended to increase teachers’ effectiveness. He said he wants to increase access to career and technical education programs.

LePage also said he wants to “further reduce our tax burden,” although he gave no specifics.
He said state government must continue to reduce red tape and regulation that stifles business growth, although he did not say how. “We need to work with our job creators – not against them,” he said.

LePage said he wants to recognize communities around the state that “go the extra mile in creating jobs and wealth.”

He said efforts to improve the business environment shouldn’t change the fact that “Maine is the most beautiful state in the nation. ... The choice between our environment and our business climate is not either-or. It should always be both,” he said.

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