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

(Continued from page 1)

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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THUMBS-UP, THUMBS-DOWN

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 vetoed 12 bills -- mostly ones with Democratic sponsors -- in his first year, more than any of the past three governors. His predecessor, John Baldacci, vetoed three bills in his first year, according to the Legislative Law Library.

He also quietly threatened to veto many bipartisan bills to force legislators to make what were sometimes minor changes in language.

Republicans in the Legislature were taken aback when LePage's office started calling to say that the governor was refusing to sign seemingly inoffensive bills dealing with low-profile issues such as dance halls and edible mushrooms. Even though administration officials had already vetted them, lawmakers were asked to recall proposed laws and change something, often a new fee that LePage felt was too high.

"He studies every piece of legislation that comes through. He's a stickler for reading everything," said Senate Majority Leader Jonathan Courtney, R-Springvale.

In one case, for example, LePage wanted a bill changed so that a new relicensing fee for retired dentists would be reduced from $250 to $75. LePage took the stand after calling a member of his Cabinet to find out what it would actually cost to process a license application.

House Assistant Majority Leader Andre Cushing, R-Hampden, had the job of explaining the recalls to Republican committee chairs.

"I had some very upset chairmen who felt they had done their work and the governor wasn't respecting them," Cushing said. "The governor, first and foremost, is not a politician ... who holds his finger up to get a sense where the public and Legislature is at."

Courtney said the governor's ability to shake things up made for an interesting year.

"His style is certainly rough and tumble, but that's OK (because) the Legislature balances that out with a little more thoughtful deliberation," he said.

"I'm not sure he knew how successful he was. He's accustomed to the business world, where, if you don't get everything you ask for, you're not successful. He got a lot of what he asked for."

Democrats, on the other hand, point out that LePage also didn't get a lot of things, in spite of his legislative majority.

House Minority Leader Emily Cain, D-Orono, called LePage's first year a roller coaster.

"What we found with this governor is he brings in an extreme position, it comes to the Legislature, where cooler heads prevail, and we end up agreeing to something," Cain said. "Just when you think you're working well together, another outrageous turn comes along."

Cain said she's confident voters also are unhappy with LePage's style and political priorities. Democrats have done well in special elections during the past year, and Mainers in November overwhelming rejected a LePage-supported effort to eliminate same-day voter registration.

That's why she is hopeful that LePage's control of the agenda, and his majority in the Legislature, won't last, she said. "I think we'll earn back the confidence of Maine voters next fall."

Cain does not dispute Le-Page's ability to dominate the news during the past year, for better or worse. But that's not necessarily good leadership, she said.

"There's a lot of good work going on here that is not going to make the headlines, but every time the governor says something extreme, he'll make the headlines," she said.

The headlines about LePage also have been the source of a yearlong battle with the media.

LePage did grant some short interviews last week with weekly newspapers, wire services and television stations, and he spoke a little bit about his first year.

"While we did not get nearly everything we asked for, we got an awful lot done the first year," LePage told Don Carrigan, a reporter for WCSH-TV (Channel 6).

When asked about the perception that he's frustrated with the pace of government, Le-Page said, "I'm a good actor, I'll leave it at that. ... I know how to push hard."

And he promised more of the same in year two.

"I pushed hard, and I'll push even harder this time," he said.

MaineToday Media State House Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

jrichardson@pressherald.com

 

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