December 12, 2013

Alan Caron: What’s the LePage plan for building a bigger economy for Maine?

The governor has made some needed reforms, but he hasn’t brought people together or seized chances for growth.

Gov. LePage clearly has a plan for a smaller government, but does he have one for a bigger economy?

A few months ago, I reviewed independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler’s plan for the economy and gave it generally good marks, even though it lacked some important elements. I’m hoping to do the same with Democratic candidate Mike Michaud’s ideas in the future.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working to find the positive aspects of Paul LePage’s plan for the economy, but it hasn’t been easy, in part because it isn’t clear that he has one. What comes across from the last three years are two things:

LePage is almost obsessed with what’s wrong with Maine, and in particular with welfare, and seems incapable of seeing or expressing what’s right.

He’s all about what government does or doesn’t do, while essentially leaving the economy to someone else.

Search as you might through the LePage record, what you find is overwhelmingly what he’s opposed to, what’s wrong with Maine, how miserable our teachers and students are, how lazy and shiftless Maine workers are, how we’re overtaxed and dependent on government programs.

To the extent LePage has an economic vision for the future, it reflects entirely the conservative Republican view of economic progress. Shrink government and lower taxes. Reduce regulation. Lower energy costs by letting the market rule. Break up the public employee unions.

To those standard elements of the so-called “trickle-down” economic theory, he’s added some of his own personal notions, including the quaint idea that tomorrow’s economy will be built on fishing, farming and forestry; that environmental regulation should be administered by lobbyists for the regulated, and that 12-year-olds be allowed to work more.

Not to say that he’s wrong about fixing government. In many respects, he’s doing what Maine people have been asking for over many decades. Sharpen the pencil. Squeeze out more waste. Modernize like everyone else. Stop protecting the status quo.

So he was right to ask some tough questions, to attack our unfunded liabilities and pension problems and to stop using Maine hospitals as a credit card for government programs. Democratic indifference to many of these issues, in many ways, paved the way for Paul LePage to emerge.

But being a tough green-shade accountant is only half of what we need from a governor. We also need to bring people together and make strategic investments in the foundations of a new prosperity.

The governor suffers, I think, from a problem that many people who are inherently negative have. He is brilliant at what’s wrong, and clueless about what’s right. He knows in every fiber what he’s against and can rattle off our liabilities from memory without ever seeing our assets. He’s good at the past and seldom seems to look to the future.

Consequently, LePage has been most effective when he’s fighting against something, putting dirt in the gearboxes and derailing initiatives. The governor can take down artwork at the Department of Labor office in Augusta, and put up a sign on the turnpike that says we’re “open for business,” but when it comes to actually building something – like Maine’s next economy – he really seems to be out of his element.

Part of his problem is that political slogans and economic action don’t often match up. Both orthodox conservative and liberal philosophies provide feel-good fun for partisans, but are nearly worthless when it comes to making the economy grow.

I’ll get to the challenges for Democrats in a future column, but for Republicans the problem is that their theories haven’t been borne out.

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