October 25, 2013

Two sides of LePage: He sometimes offends, but his focus is unwavering

By JOHN CHRISTIE
Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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Gov. Paul LePage has emerged as an anti-politician with his disdain for the sometime necessary tact required of political leaders.

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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LePage considers his second failure to be another welfare change he wanted – but didn’t get.

LePage – with support from a handful of members of both parties – wanted the state to get federal permission to ban the use of food stamps to buy soft drinks and snack food.

The bill, LD 1411, was killed – and in the process more was revealed about the fundamental differences between LePage and prevailing liberal sentiment in the Legislature. While he wanted to require more nutritious food purchases by people on public assistance, the Senate Democrats wanted to teach people to eat healthier – but not require anything.

That would avoid stigmatizing the state’s poor residents, said Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, according to the Bangor Daily News.

“Treating people who are poor differently, I think, undermines their humanity and undermines our humanity for treating them that way,” she said.

The loss seemed to pain LePage.

“Losing that nutrition thing was a heartbreak,” he said. “We failed.”

Two staff members present for the interview interrupted and said the failure wasn’t his – it was the Legislature’s.

“No,” he shot back at them. “My administration failed. This is where the buck stops.”

Chapter 6: Power to the people

“Maine’s energy costs are too high – and it’s killing economic opportunity.” - Gov. LePage, 2013 state of the state address

The high cost of energy in Maine has been one of the most consistent themes from the governor – and one of the hardest to do much about, so far.

When LePage came into office, the overall cost of electricity in the state was 31 percent above the national average, according to federal statistics quoted by the LePage administration. Two years into the LePage administration, things had improved a bit – the state was 24 percent above the national average and 12th highest in the country.

The improvement was due to a decrease in the price of natural gas in New England, from which electricity prices are set.

“We were lucky,” admitted Patrick Woodcock, the head of the LePage energy office.

But luck will only get you so far, and Woodcock said those prices are starting to tick up.

LePage’s approach to more permanent solutions reveals -- once again -- his philosophical differences with the once-prevalent thinking in state government.

Democrats have generally come at the energy issue from a policy angle, stressing the environment. Thus, Gov. John Baldacci’s efforts to make Maine a major producer of wind power, a strategy that is still being debated.

LePage comes at it from the point of view of the consumer, the family spending too much to heat their home and the businessman who pays more for electricity than competitors.

He has been a cheerleader for the expansion of natural gas in Maine, including converting many state buildings to the cheaper fuel. And much of Greater Augusta is being torn up right now to lay gas pipelines to business and homes.

Woodcock said LePage’s early support of natural gas “was controversial at the time. The inherent market was oil and those businesses were really opposed to the initiative.”

Woodcock credits LePage’s appointments to the Public Utilities Commission for making a change in regulations that includes a $1,200 rebate to convert a home to natural gas use. “That’s been driving this growth,” Woodcock said.

He cites another innovation by LePage that will help homeowners deal with the cost of keeping their homes warm that required the governor to modify his conservative opposition to the cap-and-trade plan known as RGGI.

Now, about $9 million of the $40 million RGGI funds will go to the Efficiency Maine Trust, a quasi-state agency, to help homeowners modernize their heating systems.

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