January 8, 2012

LePage's first year: 'Contentious,' 'extreme' and, yes, 'effective'

The governor met many of his goals, but his style could hurt Republicans this fall, experts say

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Something surprising happened amid all the controversy, criticism and drama during Gov. Paul LePage's tumultuous first year in office, political experts say.

Paul LePage
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Gov. Paul LePage

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The two parties’ leaders in the Legislature disagree over whether Gov. Paul LePage’s approach – which the Senate majority leader called “rough and tumble” – was effective.

2011 File Photo/John Ewing

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Here is a look at some of Gov. LePage’s victories and defeats during his first year.

What he got:

• Pension system reform: The budget passed in June will reduce the state’s pension debt by $1.7 billion by capping cost-of-living increases for retired teachers and state workers and requiring newer employees to turn 65 before qualifying for benefits.

• Tax cuts: The $6 billion two-year state budget passed in June included a variety of tax cuts, including a lower top marginal income tax bracket, an increased estate tax exemption and elimination of income tax for low-income Mainers.

• Health insurance deregulation: Health insurers will gradually be able to charge small businesses more or less depending on such factors as the age of employees; businesses will be able to shop for out-of-state plans, and Mainers with insurance will soon pay into a fund to reduce premiums for individuals who have to buy their own.

• Welfare and MaineCare reforms: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families will be cut off after five years unless an exception is granted, and an estimated 1,550 legal non-citizens were disqualified from MaineCare health insurance because they have not lived in the U.S. for at least five years.

What he didn’t get:

• MaineCare overhaul: LePage couldn’t convince the Legislature to make big cuts in MaineCare, including eliminating coverage for low-income adults who don’t have children. He proposed MaineCare cuts again in December to close a budget shortfall.

• Toxics deregulation: LePage wanted to reverse the state’s phase-out of bisphenol A in children’s products, but the Legislature rejected the effort.

• Northern Maine rezoning: LePage proposed zoning at least 30 percent of the 10 million acres of unorganized territories for development. Lawmakers instead have been studying more limited reforms for the region.

• Wetlands: Lawmakers rejected an attempt to shrink development buffer zones around vernal pools, which are temporary wetlands that fill each spring.

He had a pretty good year.

"You may not necessarily agree with his style and his tactics," said Mark Brewer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. "But if you want to just look at what he's been able to do in terms of setting the agenda and policy changes, he's gotten out of the gate pretty strong."

No governor gets everything, Brewer said, and LePage has had his share of political defeats since his inauguration a year ago. He couldn't convince the Legislature to cut Maine's Medicaid rolls in his first year, for example, and is facing similar resistance at the start of his second year.

But with the help of a Republican majority in both houses of the Legislature and a knack for dominating media coverage and controlling the agenda, LePage built a strong list of accomplishments, experts say. They include tax cuts, health insurance reforms and welfare reforms.

"I do think he's been incredibly effective," Brewer said.

Whether LePage's style and tactics continue to serve him as well over the rest of his term is less assured, experts say.

He has made little apparent effort to win over the 61 percent of Maine voters who chose other candidates in the 2009 election. And his hard-charging, abrasive approach -- especially in the first months -- may not help Republicans keep control of the Legislature next fall, some say.

"My sense is he's managed to alienate members of his own (party) as well as Democrats. In the long haul, that's not a good thing," said Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. "He might very well have determined that what he wants to do is move particular pieces of legislation now and not worry so much about the long haul."

Whatever LePage has been thinking, he's clearly not what Maine is used to in the Blaine House.

"He's not your typical politician," Brewer said. "This is really a 180-degree turn from what we've seen in Maine politics."

That difference was obvious from the start, when LePage told the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to "kiss my butt" in response to its criticism of him for declining an invitation to a Martin Luther King Day celebration in Portland.

Soon after, he ordered the removal of a mural from the Department of Labor based on an anonymous complaint that it was anti-employer. Critics began calling him a bully and buffoon, while many core supporters cheered him on.

The governor declined to be interviewed for this article, and spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett cited frustration with negative daily newspaper coverage.

Dominating the headlines may have helped LePage overall, but the early dramas were distracting, experts said.

"I think his rhetoric initially was getting him into trouble. I think that was more settling into the job," said Kenneth Palmer, political science professor emeritus at the University of Maine.

That was clear when a group of Republican legislators publicly rebuked the governor in April.

Palmer said he expects "things will go a little smoother next year."

He also said LePage actually stirred up less controversy in his first year than some other conservative, tea party-backed governors who are trying to shake up the status quo in their states.

"It was contentious in Maine, but if you look at Wisconsin, it wasn't anywhere close," Palmer said.

LePage has clearly shown he's not afraid to offend legislators to get what he wants. Which party they belong to doesn't seem to matter much.

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